At the Orpheum on Tuesday, November 13
Ben Harper is an elemental force, but not necessarily in the way you'd think. He's a fiery vocalist and a liquid guitarist, with an earthy charm and airily spiritual aspects. However, in concert he's more like spring weather: if you don't like what you're hearing, wait five minutes and you probably will.
Not interested in hard-hitting political funk? Maybe some sensitive balladeering will do. Brokenhearted love songs getting you down? How about a guitar-jam invocation of the ghost of Jimi Hendrix? That's too loud? Well, who needs amplifiers anyway? Let's just stand at the front of the stage and sing.
Any consistency the eclectic performer and his band the Innocent Criminals brought to the Orpheum on Tuesday came mainly from their new album, Lifeline, which was aired almost in its entirety. That's definitely a mixed blessing: the record was recorded fast and cheap following a lengthy tour, and it shows what was playing on the bus then. Bringing back the late 1960s and the early '70s seems to be its aim, with clear references to the Memphis soul, nascent country rock, and artless confessional songwriting of that era.
The tracks benefit from being brought to the stage, but they're not Harper's best. Although he's an inventive instrumentalist, as a songwriter he's never met a cliché he didn't like, and the collision of his histrionic singing with lyrics like "Baby say it's all right/If it takes all night" (from the new disc's "Say You Will") is often a case of much ado about next to nothing.
On the other hand, Harper could sing a speech by his Canadian namesake Stephen, and, so long as he had the Innocent Criminals behind him, it wouldn't be a complete waste of breath. Driven by the telepathic rhythm team of traps specialist Oliver Charles and hand percussionist Leon Mobley, and anchored by Juan Nelson's profound bass lines, the quintet helped its leader turn Lifeline's "Put It On Me" into a genuine Georgia-soul rave-up.
Most of the highlights, however, came from older albums or other pens. Bob Dylan made a pair of appearances in the form of a nitty-gritty Mississippi take on "Well Well Well" and a truly charged (and never more appropriate) "Masters of War", on which Harper traded verses with his friend and fellow songwriter Piers Faccini. A hushed version of the title track from 1994's Welcome to the Cruel World revealed subtleties missing from the original, and Harper went even further back into his catalogue for Chris Darrow's "Whipping Boy", from his 1992 debut, Pleasure + Pain.
The concert's single most memorable moment came when Harper motioned his band to turn way, way down and then strode to the lip of the Orpheum stage, leaving his microphone behind. With the crowd staring in near-total silence, he proceeded to testify like a true gospel veteran. That the song in question was the Bible-thumping religious screed "Where Could I Go" didn't matter: this, at last, was pure magic.
Link: Ben Harper official site