Ben Harper Learns From Live Release

After seven years and four studio albums, folk rocker Ben Harper is set to release his first live album on Tuesday.

"It had to be now or never," says the 31-year-old Harper. "It's one thing when you get one or two records into it, but when you're talking about four records, it's a greater and greater challenge to actually represent those records."

The album is stridently egalitarian: six tracks from his 1993 debut, Welcome to the Cruel World; five from 1995's Fight for Your Mind; four from 1997's The Will to Live; and seven from last year's commercial breakthrough Burn to Shine. "Four records in made a very well-balanced double-record set, so [those who] were fans of different records won't feel let down," he explains.

The 25-song, 2-CD album Live From Mars culls material recorded over the last three years on 24-track tapes, resulting in solid recording fidelity. There are no overdubs on the album, and no studio trickery. It's raw — every instrument you hear was played live," Harper proudly says.

The album is organized like a split-personality portrait of the artist and his band, the Innocent Criminals. The first disc revels in the newly plugged-in rock of Burn to Shine, while the second disc is a nod to older fans who champion the artist's folky, acoustic roots.

"With Burn to Shine there was whispers of us having gone electric and frustrations from a certain part of our fan base," he explains. "And this record strongly supports that that's not the case. One CD is just me and a guitar. There are some songs that have been done in electric ways that have been done acoustically on this album, like "Bleed" or "Roses From My Friend".

"There was definitely fallout from [going electric]. I think it was minimal, but you're bound to get it. If music's not growing, man, it's just staying the same — you've got to push different sound barriers."

The album includes covers that have become band favorites, including a rockier version of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," The Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work," and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" (a partial version spliced into the middle of "Faded"). It also includes a rare B-side — "Not Fire, Not Ice" — that Harper has long wanted to re-record with more prominent placement.

"It exposed all of our weaknesses, which we needed to be exposed to in order for this band to take the next step," Harper explains of listening to hundreds of hours of his band's performances. "Nothing gives you the perspective of being under that studio microscope and really hearing where you need to improve. Whether it's turning the corner in unison or a way I sang something that I shouldn't have been singing that way for so long, or too long of an ending or too long of an intro — you know, places where you could just trim fat. For that reason alone, if that's all that comes of this record, it's been a blessing, to say the least that we've been able to pull that."