Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Night Of Acoustic Soul: Ben Harper At Radio City Music Hall

Ben Harper
By: David Schultz

No one separates the two sides of their musical personality as well as Ben Harper. Without going to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde extremes, Harper has cultivated a softer side focusing on acoustic songs that bear the intimacy of a cozy coffee house as well as that of a soul revivalist with anthems tailor made to reverberate through arenas. It’s a dichotomy Harper has exploited with great success on Live From Mars and Both Sides Of The Gun, double albums consisting of one disc in each style. As all of Harper’s music traces its roots back to some form of gospel, soul or folk tradition, his not-so-split personality reconciles within him quite nicely.

In line with the mood of Lifeline, his latest album, Harper is focusing his current tour on his own brand of acoustic soul. The spacious Radio City Music Hall seems an unlikely space to stage an intimate performance but Harper treated the roomy concert arena as if it were no bigger than his living room. If you’re going to have a sit-down show, there’s no better place to do so than Radio City, which has the most comfortable seats you will find anywhere. Harper’s night of acoustic soul turned out to be a hit or miss strategy: when the song had a hook that pulled you in, like “Fool For A Lonesome Train” or “In The Colors,” he created an enchanting mood; otherwise, workmanlike songs that don’t have that draw, like “Fight Outta You” or “Having Wings” hung awkwardly in the air.

Harper has been dedicated to his mission, omitting crowd pleasers like “Burn One Down” and “Steal My Kisses” from his recent set lists. Sensing the audience wanted to get up and dance a little, Harper got them on their feet by the end of the show with “Put It On Me” and a sparkling cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” The moment that prompted the most spontaneously enthusiastic reaction came after Harper moved away from the microphone, hushed the crowd and sang a few verses of “Where Could I Go” with sparse accompaniment and no amplification. An amazing enough feat when he accomplished it in Central Park a year ago, in the enormity of the arena, it was a magical moment that inspired a passionate audience response.

Harper’s best musical moments came while he was seated himself, playing his trademark Weissenborn lap steel slide guitar. Before being joined by The Innocent Criminals, who were feloniously handcuffed for the majority of the evening, Harper took the stage by his lonesome for “11th Commandment” and “Well Well Well.” Likewise, he began his encore with solo versions of the instrumental “Paris Sunrise #7” and “Lifeline” before bringing Piers Facini, who opened the show, back to the stage for an impassioned cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War.” Even with its mixed metaphor of praising both Rodney King and Martin Luther King as equals in the crusade for civil rights, Harper’s stirring rendition of “Like A King/I’ll Rise” made a fitting closer, encapsulating the best of Harper and the Criminals’ acoustic skills, it ended the evening on a suitably inspirational note.

In publicizing the event as an intimate night of acoustic soul, Harper can’t be faulted for giving the audience exactly what he advertised. However, when Harper got the crowd onto their feet, teasing them with his considerable ability to rock the house, it did leave you craving more. The old adage may be true: you can’t always get the Ben Harper you want.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!