Ben Harper’s quickly scheduled and barely publicized show at the Supper Club got started early and ended late. The singer/songwriter played a blistering three-hour set of his trademark hard-nosed rock, reggae-infused blues, and acoustic folk.
Amongst his contemporaries, Harper belongs to a small club that still recognizes the importance of returning to one’s roots. One-off shows in small venues like this reward the fans who have been with Harper since the beginning—even if such appearances are fewer and further between since he’s begun to prosper in the mainstream. The show was pretty hush-hush, as Ben Harper club members were the first to be able to snag tickets, getting there’s before a blitzing of Ticketmaster left the show sold out and Craigslist’s auction block blowing up.
Harper and his Criminals bask in warm green and purple lights as they stand above five knit-woven carpets with distinct, eye-pleasing Mexcian patterns. The set is comprised of many of Harper’s famous soft ballads alongside some harder material, many pulled from his recently released double LP Both Sides of the Gun.
In his 2002 documentary Pleasure & Pain, Harper was adamant about his reluctance to accept labels bestowed upon him and his music; he was hesitant to be known as a writer of “protest music”. But if there is a more socially conscientious song than “Black Rain” released this year (or in the past five years, for that matter), I would be interested to hear it. Carried by a thick, ‘70s, 125th Street Harlem kind of funk, Harper shames the administration (“you don’t fight for us/ but expect us to die for you”) and their follies with the Katrina disaster, then takes it a step further with a call to action (“You may kill the revolutionary/ but the revolution/ you can never bury/ it won’t be long before the people fill the streets/ to take you down!”).
If Harper doesn’t want labels, then Harper shouldn’t get them, but you still have to pat the man on the back for refusing to forget what went down last fall. Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote about the power of a society and its direct relationship with its collective memory. Sometimes things happen that aren’t pretty, that leave an embarrassing mark on the pages of history. The power of the people lies in their memory—the fuel to the rage, the serum to injustice. Harper’s take is a glaring reminder that though all the mistakes and misjudgments have so far gone unpunished, they are by no means forgotten.
“Better Way” is the smell of the best breakfast you ever awoke to find waiting for you. It spreads an optimistic warmth across the crowd but also begs each set of ears to ask some of the bigger questions: “What good is a man that doesn’t take a stand?” “You have a right to your dream and don’t be denied.”.
And his voice. It’s been a few weeks since Quentin B. Huff reviewed the new album for PopMatters and took a couple shots at Harper, saying, “quite frankly he wasn’t blessed with the best pipes in the business.” I’m still at a loss for words. Because, tonight, it was abundantly clear that despite the enormous talent of the Innocent Criminals, despite the nasty skills of Harper on his slide, this music is loved for one simple reason—Harper’s voice. Whether he is drawing out his words, articulating syllables as if they were covering up a lump in his throat during an overcast somber rendition of “Another Lonely Day”, or yelping maniacally during “Better Way”, the beautiful words sewn into each song contain a message that wouldn’t be nearly as effective from the lips of any other shaman. Each song can sound completely different on any given night, depending upon how Harper plays with his pitch He cradles his words like poetry, completely in control of his instrument, the crowd held in his palm.
Throughout the course of the evening I see actor Heath Ledger running around the balcony taking hundreds of shots of the band, smiling as if it’s his first concert. Victoria’s Secret model Gisele Bundchen looks like she is going to run out of lighter fluid as she headbangs beside me for two straight hours. As amazing as this show is, I may be as impressed by the star power it attracted—not because of their presence in the room, but more so because of their behavior. Seeing two high profiles congregating with the rest of us common people in a communion and celebration of song was a nice reminder of the binding power of music, and a testimony to the influence of Harper’s message.
To paraphrase Wesley Snipe’s forgotten playground stud Sydney Dean, it was a welcome reminder that a lot of people aren’t satisfied just listening to music anymore—they’re interested in hearing it, too.