Ben Harper And The Innocent Criminals Go 'Live From Mars'

Ben Harper's got some decisions to make. He's nearly through listening to the tapes of almost every show he and his Innocent Criminals have performed over the past three years. And now it's time to

Ben Harper's got some decisions to make. He's nearly through listening to the tapes of almost every show he and his Innocent Criminals have performed over the past three years. And now it's time to decide which songs -- from that stack of more than 500 shows -- will go on his first live album, "Live From Mars."

Harper, like many artists before him, could simply pick one of those shows, put it out, and be done with it. But his legion of fans deserves better, he says. He and the Innocent Criminals put in the time listening to all those tapes so they could give those fans something special.

But still, exactly what will go on the record -- slated for a March 27 release on Virgin -- hasn't yet been decided. Harper's talking about including a version of "Faded" that segues into Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." There's his acoustic rendition of the Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work." Maybe "Forgiven," off "Burn To Shine," or "Mama's Got A Girlfriend Now," from his first record. Most likely, the set will include Harper's cover of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."

Despite such uncertainty, the singer/songwriter says the live album is something he and the band want to get out of their system now. "If we don't do it now," he says, "we will amass an insurmountable amount of material to go through. I mean, we've recorded every show for the last five years. It's daunting the amount of listening we've had to do and even still do."

And it makes sense to put a live album out now, after four studio albums, he believes. "You don't really want to make a live record with more than four records out, because four records' worth of material is just so much to go through," he explains. "Once you start getting into five, six, or seven records, it will water down that live record because you'll take so little off each one. This way, we can take a chunk off each record and have it represent the records respectably and still be autonomous."

Well aware of the relative ease with which his fans can obtain bootlegs of his shows -- either through Napster or select traditional retailers -- Harper is doing his best to ensure that "Live From Mars" is a must-have for fans. The package will include two CDs; the first an electric set with the Innocent Criminals, the second a collection of solo acoustic performances culled from radio station appearances and other sources.

"I want people to go, 'You know what? This band is on,'" he says. "I want people to go, 'I wanna see these guys.'"

Though the band has five years' worth of tapes to pick from, the tracks will probably come from shows that took place over the past two years, during which the band -- Harper, bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth, and percussionist David Leach -- recorded its best live performances, Harper says.

The album's first single will most likely be "Sexual Healing," says Ray Cooper, co-president of Virgin Records America. "We think it's got opportunities to continue to broaden the audience, eventually in the way that 'Steal My Kisses' did off the last album," he points out. All major music-video networks will be sent live footage of Harper and the Innocent Criminals performing the song in Paris and Denver.

Some fans got a taste of a Harper live album in 1997, when Virgin bundled a free live EP with 50,000 copies of the "The Will To Live" album. Many more will have a chance once a documentary of the band -- shot by photographer Danny Clinch -- is released later this year.

Harper says he's thinking about releasing another live album after his eighth studio release. But that could change quite quickly. "At the same time, we may take the Pearl Jam route," he says. "After this is out for a few months, six months maybe, we may release every show we've ever done online or something."

The L.A.-based act is now playing secondary markets in the U.S. That tour will extend, hitting larger markets, through the summer. Harper is also set to perform on ESPN's first action sports and music awards show, airing April 10. After the tour, he and the band plan to take a break and then head back into the studio to record their next album, which Harper hopes to finish recording in December or January.

"We've got a couple of albums' worth of material, man. We've got material for days," Harper says. "It's just a matter of sitting down with it and working out each others' parts, playing it over, and just really familiarizing ourselves with it and bringing the best out of the studio from it." A likely candidate for the next album is a new song called "Blessed To Be A Witness," and another, older number entitled "Touched By Your Lust."

For both Harper and his fans, "Live From Mars" has been a long time coming. He says it will be nice to finally have a live album in stores. "After every show, two times, minimum -- if not four -- I hear, 'You guys should put out a live record,'" he says. "I hear that often enough to know that I want do this so that it can be done. It's been brought up so many times that it's an obvious. This band, I think, is known as a live band. And it seems to me that it is. And I think, why not put out a representation of that? Why not make that move? You know, again, because that is much of what this band is known for; it's just time to do it.