If Taj Mahal and Tracy Chapman had a baby boy, he’d be the spitting aural image of Ben Harper, the 24-year-old Claremont native whose debut album, “Welcome to the Cruel World,” is a striking, low-key mixture of mostly acoustic blues and unfettered, we-shall-overcome folk earnestness.
Harper’s show on Thursday at the Troubadour occasionally took on the tone of a progressives’ hootenanny, with the singer--who otherwise seemed quite the stage introvert--exchanging some raised-fist salutes with the audience between anti-racism anthems. As a protest lyricist, in songs such as “Like a King” (which tries to establish the elusive social connection between Kings Rodney, Dr. Martin Luther and the Lord), Harper tends toward lines that are blunt and a little clumsy, though, at 24, he’s got plenty of time to hone good intentions into a more graceful evangelism. Better were his tender love songs and spirituals.
As a guitarist, he’s in no need of further seasoning. His picking on several vintage hollow-body Weissenborns--often played as lap-top slide guitars--was exquisite and mesmerizing. And though his rhythm section played loudly enough to easily support an electric player, the unusual tension between their wallop and Harper’s more refined acoustic touch is essential toward the excellent case being made for the blues’ not being a museum piece yet.