Friday, September 7, 2007

Live Review: Ben Harper @ Chicago Theater, 9/6/07

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals Class Things Up

by Ari Bendersky

Set to a backdrop of red velvet crush beneath glistening glass chandeliers, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals surprised the Chicago crowd as they casually sauntered on stage at the Chicago Theater looking like a band straight out of the Wild West or perhaps even a lively juke joint in the Louisiana Bayou or, oddly enough, from the pages of GQ. Dressed in assorted suits, ties, vests, hats and the like, the band set the tone and carried it through the evening. The guy sitting behind me said aloud – to his friend or to perhaps whoever was listening – "this is gonna be one of those shows." And it was.

Kicking things off with "Two Hands of a Prayer," Ben and the boys meandered through a mellow yet exhilarating two-hour set that included a number of tracks off their just-released album, Lifeline. It didn't matter that we were sitting and enjoying the music, because it made you realize it was truly about the music. The band has enjoyed a very interesting year – having recorded the album in Paris in seven days at the end of their European tour about a year ago and carrying it through to solid performance at Lollapalooza in August (where Eddie Vedder joined Ben for a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War"). They're currently in the midst of a tour that's taking them to glamorous, storied theater across America, showing a side of themselves that, as far as I know, hasn't readily been seen.

The band is poised, confident and tighter than they have ever been in the past. Each time this writer has seen BHIC live over the last three years, they have continued to grow, stretch and expand on a sound that's been well worn over the last decade. Recording, and eventually releasing, Lifeline marked a turn, a passing, in Ben Harper's ever-growing career. It allowed him to get to a place where he feels comfortable in his recordings, to play with a sound he's grown with and morph it with music of his roots: soul, gospel, R&B, funk.

They explored this sound at the Chicago Theater, providing an intimate setting with which to give something back to their fans. Through songs like the inspirational "Fight Outta You," the loving "Fool for a Lonesome Train," the boogie down "Put it on Me" and the get-down-and-dirty grinder "Use Me," originally recorded by the incomparable Bill Withers, the band was poised, in-tune and in sync.

There's a point on Lifeline where, after spending the night in the Paris studio and seeing the sun rise, Ben riffs on his Weissenborn. He told me in June that he improvised that song – "Paris Sunrise # 7" – and it was captured in one take. When he was finished, the guys in the recording studio were holding up lighters and he knew it was the one. Tonight, on stage, as Ben sat beneath a single sepia-toned spotlight, looking like a late 19th century portrait, he channeled that early-morning energy and offered a little piece of his Paris experience to the crowd. This led to an emotional rendition of the album's title track to then close things out with a duo of "Like a King" (about Rodney King) and "I'll Rise," a song about freedom, strength and self-awareness.

I've seen Ben Harper countless times since my first show at Chicago's Metro back in 1997 and have spent many hours talking and chilling with him, one on one. Ben's music spoke volumes tonight – and his sincerity as he stared back into the crowd reaffirmed not only his position in music history, but also his willingness and need to give back. It was something that was greatly appreciated as the lights came on and the crowd filed, slowly and with smiles, out of the theater. It was indeed one of those shows.