At the end of his two-plus hour acoustic set, Ben Harper leaned back into his chair, pushed the Fedora off his forehead and took a deep breath. After a beat, he reached forward to grab the set list from the monitors and said something close to: “Ben Harper fans are some of the bravest in the world. You stuck with me through this set list. Thank you for getting it.”
To be sure, this was a set list that borrowed from every shifting mood in Harper’s extensive oeuvre. From opener “Blessed to be a Witness” played on a ukulele to the raging “Call it What it Is (Murder)” to a steal-your-breath rendition of “Forever,” this was Harper on full display. He also debuted a pair of new songs, “Trying Not to Fall in Love with You” and “I Trust You to Dig my Grave.” The later, he said, is a shoe-in for the next collaboration with Charlie Musselwhite.
It’s not news that you and I love musicians because their songs connect with us at an emotional and spiritual level. Most of us, me especially, couldn’t pick out a chord or a backbeat or a ghost note if my life depended on it — and I was a music journalist for 20 years! But we get the emotion. We get the spirit. We get the passion.
I latched on to Ben back in 1995 or so. He had just released “Fight for Your Mind.” I was writing about musicians I hated — faux punk rock poser rock and roll bands that were more concerned with watching their shoes than connecting with audiences. Plus, it was all big and loud for no apparent reason. And the fucking lyrics meant nothing. I don’t even think the bands knew what they were saying.
Then I picked a CD off a pile — back then us music journalists would get at least 20 of ‘em a week — and put it on.
“Oppression,” “Ground on Down” and “Another Lonely Day” played.
I stood up and stared at the CD player.
“Excuse Me Mr.”
Holy shit. I’d found a voice that bled authenticity and the music was sharp, honest, accessible and different. I’d just gotten the Internet back then, so I’m guessing that one of the first things I searched for on Alta Vista was “Weissenborn guitars.” Actually, the first was probably “Anna Nicole Smith nude,” but you get the idea.
At the time, I was writing for one of the best music magazines in the history of music magazines: Musician. I loved that rag and I respected the hell out of the editors I was writing for: Mac Randall and Bob Doerschuk. I picked up the phone (email wasn’t the only way to communicate back then) and got Mac on the horn. I said something to the effect of: “Mac, this is the first guy I’ve gotten excited about in a long time. Great songs. Different sound. Truly unique.” Mac gave me some space to fill for a new section called What the Players Play.
It just so happened that Ben was on the road and he was coming to town. At that time, the shows I was covering were happening in dingy bars at 11 at night. Ben’s show? Marin County Fairgrounds. Afternoon. Hot. Not what I was used to, but whatever.
The band — Ben, bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles and percussionist Leon Mobley (Remember those names, people.) — killed it. Honest. Driving. Arresting. Those Marin County hippies — and from my recollection it was mostly 40-somethings in tie-died shirts and Birkenstocks — and Wavy Gravy (YES! Wavy Gravy was there…) vibed on the messages of love and revolution. He was a perfect flashback voice for them.
The point of THAT digression is that what I saw that first day was what I saw just the other night. Ben was a little sped up in Saratoga — I suppose playing alone does that — but he was just as available and honest.
Were there flubs and missed cues? Yes. Of course. It’s live music. There was also some interesting experimentation. I’d never heard Ben play electric guitar on some of these songs. It brought a subtle edge and while I was expecting snaps of rage with the electric in his hands, the new tones brought their own level of interest and he resisted the cliché.
At one point during the set, Ben began to play a song and said, “Rickie Lee Jones plays this so much better, but I’m not letting that get in my head.” A drunk guy in the audience yelled out: “No he doesn’t.” I love drunk people.
There was a time in my rock critic days where I’d bemoan the songs that weren’t played — I always love hearing “Glory and Consequence” and “Like a King” — but this time around, I was there for the ride. Hearing “Roses from My Friends” again after so many years of missing it was an awakening. Going along with the “Give a Man a Home/Purple Rain” medley was fascinating.
It felt like one of those nights that wasn’t tethered. It was free from any forced, “I’m playing only new songs because I need you to buy the new record.” Yes, Ellen Harper came out and played four songs from their latest release, but the set had the vibe of an introspective retrospective evening.
Once upon a time Ben told me (he is probably the musician I’ve spent the most time interviewing, critiquing, writing about) that he felt like he was writing in three album movements. This night it felt like he was playing all those movements in 120 minutes.
And, put all together, it didn’t feel like the movements were disparate attempts to curry favor with the masses. In fact, it’s probably time for us as fans to sit back, breathe deep, and realize that we’re watching an artist that’s fully comfortable serving the music he’s hearing rather than chasing trends.
To me, that’s the mark of bravery.