Photos by Ali Kaufman
Ben Harper is back together with the Innocent Criminals and on the road in support of Call It What It Is, the new album out April 8th, on STAX. The College Street Music Hall is fast becoming a magnetic stop for bands traveling between NY and Boston and we in CT are all the richer for it. On April 6, we made bank.
Having seen Ben Harper several times in different configurations (solo, collaborating with Bonnie Raitt, with the Relentless 7 and, prior to their hiatus, with the Innocent Criminal this show felt like a first time all over again. The joyful energy among these self-proclaimed brothers is clearly evident in the way they relate to each other on stage, through music, word and visually. They seem like the kind of family you pick, not the ones we are just stuck with.
The first song out of the gate was the brand new track “Shine,” and, like one of the lines from that song, it is “shiny like a new tattoo.” Played while Harper sat center stage, guitar across his lap, this catchy, upbeat tune is about to get a lot of air play. Second one up was probably one of the group’s best known and most covered tunes, “Steal my Kisses.” I’m happy that they haven’t shelved this classic: it set the crowd to dancing and was probably super smart to play it early so many were be able to better enjoy the show without spending time wondering, Is it next?
Harper’s shows tend to be a love fest. The age demographic runs the gamut, but there are usually a lot of couples, canoodling to “their” songs. As much as I love Harper’s rendition of “Sexual Healing,” I fear security would have had a mess on their hands had he busted that one out.
The drum-heavy “Better Way” showcased Leon Mobley’s talent on congas and cajon, while Harper traded riffs with Juan Nelson on bass. Harper sings “I believe there’s a better way” with such conviction and emotion that he makes us believe it too. Many sang along for “Diamonds on the Inside,” played on an acoustic guitar, then Ben traded it out for an electric for the next few songs, which were also new. “Finding Our Way” is a funky, reggae infused romp while the slower, sweeter “Deeper and Deeper” showcases Harper’s tender vocals.
Harper punctuated the evening’s set list with some great stories about growing up in the record store his parents owned in California, where he sat at the feet of well-known patrons like guitarist Ry Cooder and the man that eventually gave him his first paying gig, Taj Mahal. Harper’s impersonation of Taj telling him “When you get the ticket in the mail, get on the plane” was worth the price of admission.
Around the midpoint, the group cleared the stage and Harper launched into a few solo tunes; the Innocent Criminals returned for “Into The Colors” off Lifeline, the 2007 release they recorded in France. Then, one of my all-time favorites, “Gold to Me,” which was just exactly that. We did eventually get “Burn One Down” and a very cool a capella moment when Harper stepped away from the mic and took to the lip of the stage to belt one out. He praised his talented band, including Oliver Charles on drums, percussionist Leon Mobley on congas and cajon, Juan Nelson on bass, Michael Ward on guitar and Jason Yates on keys.
We were treated to two encore songs that had Harper dancing with his guitar swinging along. The show that had lasted over two hours wrapped with heartfelt reflection of the set list and how it mixed the band’s history and its future.
Harper thanked us for being “the bravest damn fans on the planet.” You’re welcome, Mr. Harper, but it’s not much of a stretch. The pleasure is all ours.