The stage was finally darkened, with Ben Harper's trademark platform placed left of center, the weissenborns, electric and acoustic guitars set up around a chair that the performer would rarely vacate during the show. Some thirty minutes after the scheduled start time, Harper took the stage of New York's Roseland, alone.
The performance was worth the wait. Harper began quietly, breezing through the acoustic-guitar instrumental "The Three of Us." Soon after, Harper's band, the Innocent Criminals, took their positions and launched into "Gold to Me," from Harper's 1995 breakthrough album Fight for Your Mind
, and quickly established his rock credentials. Drummer Dean Butterworth's hip-hop beats and percussionist David Leach's African accents weaved into the blues-rock framework. Harper was in excellent vocal form, his sweet rasp pushed to a wail as easily as it was reduced to an emotive whisper, and his guitar work was focused and precise. Juan Nelson's bass lines infused a deep, ripping funk; his solos, especially on "Fight for Your Mind," soared on P-Funk energy.
Harper and his crew powered through the show, relishing one more chance to stretch musically from the acoustic gospel of "Waiting on an Angel," to the Southern-rock-tinged "Burn to Shine," to the electric blast of "Alone." Though seated throughout the set, Harper showed his pleasure, rocking when he wasn't bent over in virtuosic concentration.
As he has throughout his career, Harper showed no regard for musical boundaries. The ghost of Jimi Hendrix was just as welcome onstage (Harper's solos would have made the legend proud) as were those of Kurt Cobain ("Please Bleed" revealed a deep respect) and Bob Marley ("Oppression" was beautifully interrupted by the classic anthem "Get Up Stand Up"). Harper turned to direct flattery during his encores, covering Pearl Jam's resistance song "Indifference" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," a particular crowd favorite. During his nearly two-hour performance, Harper musically stomped, strutted and seduced. His band moved with him, sometimes drowning him out almost entirely in their powerful zeal, as on "Ground on Down" and "Please Bleed," but Harper always recovered, emerging with a wail or with a solo that quickly re-established his place at center stage -- or just left of it. Gotta leave room for the ghosts.
Written by MARIE ELSIE ST. LÉGER for RollingStone.com News