Surfing the Katrina Wave 

Surfer dude Ben Harper gets wicked serious on his new double disc.

Ben Harper lost his wedding ring this morning on the way to the NBC studios in New York, and his anxiety blinds him to the two college-aged girls gawking at him across the cafe.

"Somebody must have that [driver's] number," he pleads with his publicist from across the room. "Am I talking too loud?" he asks, lowering his voice. It doesn't even dawn on the soulful acoustic singer-songwriter that some fans have recognized him. When as much is suggested, his eyebrows rise and he whispers, "That's some other shit."

Harper is here to record an appearance on The Tonight Show, to promote his latest album Both Sides of the Gun. Despite the trappings associated with double albums, the two-disc CD avoids pretentiousness by successfully juxtaposing the optimism of disc one with the pessimism of disc two. Disc one features the family-centric "Morning Yearning" and a lullaby "Happy Everafter in Your Eyes" (a track written for Heath Ledger's daughter). A tirade against the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina, "Black Rain," and other fun ditties such as "Please Don't Talk about Murder While I'm Eating" dominate disc two.

"They just wouldn't mix together," Harper explains, sipping on a latte and sporting one badass, superpatriotic red, white, and blue headband around the base of his neatly coiffed Afro. "Musically, they might go together, but lyrically they were challenging each other too much. From song to song, I couldn't find the right balance. But personally, I would've felt incomplete not having them in the same body of work."

Press Harper about what connects the two discs and he opts for contemplative silence. "I make the music that I feel and not what is expected of me," he says. "Words get in their own way."

Indeed, things seem to flow on an instinctual level for Harper, who comes off as both educated and wise. Scott Thomas of Los Angeles band Ringside recently toured Australia with him and calls him a "holy man." Sit with Harper long enough and he earns such reverence with his passion, his convictions, and, believe it or not, an aura of peace that all those who know him are drawn to.

This is why Harper won't disclose the intense experience lurking behind his most heavy and powerful work — a far cry from the acoustic surfer vibes many associate with him. He simply observes that Both Sides is an expression of his "evolution and where I've been through today."

It's also a curious commercial gamble, since the sixty minutes of tracks could fit on one disc, yet Harper insisted on dividing them without increasing the price. "My first album was diverse, from song to song, and I was told, 'You can't do that. It won't work,'" he says. "I've kind of just done it wrong for so long, it's become a style."

Another gamble he's made this time around is taking George W. Bush and the US government to task for their handling of Katrina, disregarding any fear of a Kanye-grade backlash. He calls that "level of wickedness, unconsciousness, and irresponsibility a big tree," but, he adds, grinning, "I'm a small motherfucking ax ready to chop."

It all comes down to what is probably the most important line on Both Sides. On "Better Way," Harper sings, What good is a man who won't take a stand? These words define every second of the double album, from the love of his family and the promise every new day brings on disc one to the anger over the world they have to inhabit that causes him to rage on disc two.

The two fans drooling over the chisel-faced, tattoo-covered Harper finally psych themselves up enough to ask if they can get a photograph with him. He gladly obliges and returns with a grin on his face. Stardom has punctured the anxiety of losing his wedding ring just a bit.

"She just told me her boyfriend, if he met me, would sleep with me," he says. "I've never been told that before."

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