URBANA — Ben Harper always noticed the confused looks.
When he opened for the Roots, the Fugees, Pearl Jam and other popular ’90s acts, he’d put his guitar flat in his lap, strumming the strings with one hand and sliding up and down the stem with the other.
“A lot of those (people) didn’t even know what I was playing,” he said. “(They said), ‘What is that thing?’”
Harper’s love of lap steel guitar began in his grandparents’ music store as a child, which was frequented by famous musicians including Leonard Cohen, Taj Mahal, John Darnielle and David Lindley. The undulating sound of the steel guitar in particular spoke to him, and he began playing as a teenager.
“To me, it reflects and mirrors the human voice in a specific way, and that taps into something for me that I found out early on I wasn’t willing to live without,” he said. “And to me, what I hope that people can see in it is that I’m still playing a guitar.”
Harper, who rose to fame in the 2000s as both a solo act and with his band, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, is set to debut a new piece showcasing lap steel guitar at 9 p.m. today as part of Ellnora: The Guitar Festival at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Harper, a three-time Grammy winner who had 14 albums on the Billboard 200 between 1999 and 2018, including “Both Sides of the Gun” at No. 7 in 2006, has developed an eclectic catalog of pop, folk, blues, soul and reggae, becoming known as much for his voice as his guitar skills. But while he integrated lap steel guitar into his music, it was never the primary focus of his work until last year.
In the midst of the pandemic, Harper released “Winter is for Lovers,” an instrumental album written as one 29-minute piece. Since its release in October, Harper said he’s been told that the stripped-down composition, which involves only his lap steel guitar, has the feel of a project written in quarantine.
In fact, it had been in the works for 20 years and was finished before the pandemic began. Originally, he planned it as a symphony with lap steel guitar at the center. He even recorded it in a large production at Capitol Studios. But after he heard the rendition, he decided to change course.
He said his goal was to showcase the lap steel guitar in a way that had never been done, and the more instruments he added, the more it sounded like music he’d already heard.
“I’ve always heard about people who remodeled their house, and then once they finish, hate it, and then do it again,” he said. “And I didn’t hate it, mind you. We got a couple of wonderful B-sides out of it. But I had always heard about people who had done double remodels, or authors who had scrapped their novel, and I never thought I would be one of those people. I couldn’t believe it, but I had to do it.”
“It was unlike any experience, just because I found myself having to step back from it. It forced me to take a good, hard look in the mirror and admit, maybe I didn’t get it right.”
Because of the pandemic, Harper hasn’t yet been able to perform the piece live. That will change at 9 p.m. today in Foellinger Great Hall.
The large concert hall lends itself to the piece’s form, as “Winter is for Lovers” is “closer to a Bach cello suite than ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’” said Ellnora artistic adviser David Spelman, referring to the classic Beatles’ album.
“The idea of Ben all by himself all on a chair with an acoustic guitar in a world-class hall where audiences may have also seen Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform is a really special thing,” Spelman said. “No matter how many times a fan may have seen Ben Harper, I think this will be a unique experience and exactly what Ellnora is all about.
“This is a world premiere you might expect to hear about in Los Angeles or New York or London or Tokyo, and here it is at our guitar summit on the prairie, and I think that’s really a matter of pride for us.”
To be invited to a guitar festival on the merits of this album, Harper said, was particularly special. When he saw that he’d be playing in Foellinger Great Hall, he was sold on participating.
After spending the last year perfecting the piece in his home, practicing day after day, Harper said he’s excited to finally perform it live in its entirety. He’s played only two shows this year, and both were with his band.
Tonight, he’ll finally perform a show decades in the making.
“There’s a specific sort of frequency resonance that comes with pressing play on a record, and there’s a whole other frequency resonance that happens when you’re in front of people and it’s received in real time,” Harper said. “Our ears are the best speakers in the world.
“I was proud of the sonic aspect or quality of ‘Winter is for Lovers.’ I feel that it was captured in as genuine an acoustic — almost as close as you can come to being in the room. I feel when you put ‘Winter is for Lovers’ at the right volume, you could actually feel like someone is in the corner playing. That’s my hope at least.
“But when someone is actually in the corner or on the stage playing in real time, it’s a collaborative process. In the studio, you collaborate with the engineer. Live, you collaborate with everyone in the seats. And so that just resonates in a different way when that’s happening.”