The aptly named Harper is harmonica player Peter Harper, who was born in Britain, moved to western Australia with his family as a child, and has now come to rest in Grass Lake. He recorded six albums in Australia but moved to the United States because there were more opportunities here for his distinctive brand of the blues, picking Michigan, he says, because it was centrally located and because the friendly, down-to-earth citizenry of our state reminded him of home. In Australia’s far-flung cities he worked with pickup bands, but here he’s developed a sound that relies on tight interplay with the members of his own group of handpicked musicians.
What sets Harper apart from the crowd is the presence in his music of the didgeridoo, which he never played in Australia. He was inspired to investigate the ponderously resonating, droning tube after a conversation in Silverton, Colorado, with a member of the Native American Hopi tribe. The didgeridoo doesn’t appear in every Harper song, but at a recent concert at Ypsilanti’s Savoy club he came on stage with a rack of different ones, and the most appealing aspect of his music is the variety of ways in which he incorporates the instrument into basic blues, blues-rock, and R&B frameworks.
In the Australia anthem “Big Brown Land,” the didgeridoo serves an atmospheric function, quietly framing the verses with low buzzes, but elsewhere it takes a more active role. Harper uses it for solos in place of the harmonica, which adds a unique vector of contrast between tension and spiritual calm to his music, and it can also turn into a percussion instrument in a couple of different ways; it can be hit on the outside with a drumstick or made to produce explosive sounds from within.
Each of these choices brings Harper new ways of interacting with his band members, and over the four albums he’s recorded in the States he’s stretched his songwriting to match, adding influences from Jimi Hendrix up to 1970s funk and rock to the basic blues mix. Harper has a big, clear voice, and he offers all-original songs with a spiritual bent and a positive vibe. He’s played quite a few festivals and clubs around this part of the country, including northern Michigan’s Dunegrass. You can check out his unique example of the worldwide resonance of the blues at Top of the Park on Wednesday, July 23.