By Mike Finkelstein
For years, it seems that I’ve brushed up to a nice bushel or two of “keeper” songs from Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. These tunes are the good stuff, the type of songs people use in their weddings, and the band’s reputation as performers is similarly top shelf. Still, I never did get a chance to see them do what they do live until Friday night at the Greek Theatre. Turns out they haven’t played LA in eight years. But, man, did they deliver a fine show on Friday.
Before Harper took the stage a duo called The Thousand-aires came onstage and did a little bit of beat poetry for us. They were just a bass and spoken word, but their one piece, “The Heat,” was about what percolates below the surface of life in SoCal. It featured some entertaining spoken and musical phrases and surely raised the mood of the evening.
A little after 8 p.m., everyone who was coming had made it into the Greek. Throughout the evening it seemed that there was something different about the audience. They were quiet in the right spots, enthused in others and ecstatic between tunes. While the crowd was huge, there was very little extraneous crowd noise during the songs. People stayed quiet out of respect for the music. It’s rare to see, but it was remarkable and it was definitely appreciated by the band and the audience.
Ben Harper is a unique stage presence. Between his solidly lean look, his edgy yet sensitive presence, and a Les Paul Junior in his hands he evokes Bob Marley in a sincere and original way. For about half the time he sat center stage and played his Weissenborn-style lap steel guitars. Some were solid body, some were acoustic but they all roared and moaned in his hands.
Sometimes he cranked them through a wah-wah pedal. The other half of his time was spent on his feet with that Les Paul Junior. On the Greek’s live video feed you could see the words Overdrive Special on his amp head just over his shoulder. Kinda makes sense when you see it right there, because he did have a smoldering sound. Above that amp was a skateboard … with his likeness painted onto the bottom of the deck. He ollie’d/kick-flipped it a few times later on in the evening.
While the Innocent Criminals (bassist Juan Nelson, percussionist Leon Mobley, guitarist Michael Ward, drummer Oliver Charles, and keyboardist Jason Yates) groove and cook like champions, Harper calmly cycled through eye contact with all of them throughout the set and within a song. This band sounded much more concerned with their overall sound than with soloing. That being said, Leon Mobley did just great with his djembe solo, and bassist Juan Nelson did some very tasty work on several solos that were a blend of tasty and funky. These solos only advanced the song, not suspending it for the sake of a solo. It’s interesting to watch a guy like Nelson live all night in the pocket, and then clearly step out of it so smoothly. It is, after all, the mark of a journeyman not to let the seams show.
Friday’s entire set list was incredibly well received, with several high points. Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” even made it, done their own inimitable way. Songs, like “Homeless Child,” and “Ground on Down,” chugged along as the blues will, with Harper’s wailing steels over the mix. While these songs did boogie mightily, it was the more introspective and beautifully constructed ones that put the crowd into that state of demanding quiet to savor the vibe. It was so good to hear songs like “Diamonds on the Inside,” “In the Colors,” “Take That Attitude to Your Grave,” “Alone,” and “Better Way,” live for the first time.
Harper is charismatic when he tells a story. The crowd will hush for him. On Friday, after the song was over, he told the story of how the seed was planted for “Take That Attitude to Your Grave,” when he was less than 10. It had to do with the commanding presence of his dad…a presence that would diffuse a fight, subdue an angry stranger, and even quiet a yapping dog in an alley way. The details of his dad’s silent power were not lost on young Harper. What a great set of chords and words… a special song! And while I’ve heard several great versions of “Walk Away,” the version he opened the encore with transcended the others.
“Where Could I Go, But to the Lord,” was not a Harper original. It’s a traditional gospel song that he collaborated on to record with the Blind Boys of Alabama. But Harper simply owned this song with the Innocent Criminals. When he was singing away from the mic and into the night air, the crowd gave him the quiet to project to the entire venue. “I don’t belong up here, and there are those out there that know it better than most,” he testified. This was powerful and impressive stuff. No put-ons here. I’d have to say that, yes, anyone who brings that much soul and musicality with him certainly does belong up there on stage.
Friday’s program began at a rather hard to reach 6:30pm. I actually got to see some of Gill Landry’s solo opening set. The Greek was maybe 20% full for his bluesy folk music in the classic Dylan format of one guy singing with his guitar and a harmonica in a holder. But, the Greek is gorgeous at dusk and, with so much space for people to relax, it was the place to be. The orchestra pit was open and surprisingly full, so the vibe was super chill, but with enough people to give Landry a boost, everyone who came early clearly dug it.