Ben Harper‘s appeal lies in the fact that he offers something new, while at the same time offering something familiar and comforting. Without a doubt, few artists out there possess Harper’s patented Weissenborn guitar wail, or his mix of fire and spirituality; that combination definitely adds to the sense that he’s forging new territories. At the same time, though, he’s a direct throwback (and maybe perfect synthesis) of classic rock artists like Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. He shows Hendrix’s knack for exploratory arrangements and Marley’s belief in music as a genuine force of change. Even folks who dismiss Harper as a harder-edged version of a jam band have to admit that he’s probably one of the few artists who truly believes in the transformational power of what he’s doing.
He also puts on one hell of a live show.
Fittingly, the heart of the live Harper experience is Harper himself, traditionally sitting in a chair center-stage, either hunkered down over his guitar or with his head thrown back in the middle of a high note. At the right moments, when that setup combines with the right material, the effect can be downright transcendent, as if the walls of the venue have closed down around Harper, giving a stadium the comfort and intimacy of a bedroom, where Harper is just playing music for himself.
Generally, though, Harper takes full advantage of his crack band, the Innnocent Criminals, a tight, seamless unit featuring two percussionists. Live, the group can throw up an unholy racket while maintaining a focused, grinding groove. Harper can throw a lot of styles at you in the course of a show, and the Innocent Criminals don’t miss a beat.
Live at the Hollywood Bowl catches Harper and the Innocent Criminals at, you guessed it, Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl. On the whole, it’s a pretty good show with some definite moments of transcendence, although something definitely gets lost in the translation to the small screen. Unless you’re operating in surround sound or have a home theatre, it’s unlikely you’ll get the full impression of the guitar roar that comes from Harper’s unassuming posture, but that’s OK.
Ironically, things kick off with three songs—“Glory and Consequence”, “Excuse Me Mr.”, and “Brown Eyed Blues” (the last after a nice tale by Harper about seeing his mother perform at the Bowl)—featuring Harper playing electric guitar from a standing position. In those three songs, though, Harper sweeps across three of his major strengths. The rock vibe of “Glory and Consequence” eases into the reggae bounce (and great percussion fills) of “Excuse Me Mr.” and the R&B vibe of “Brown Eyed Soul”. By the time he sings, “I was living a Johnny Cash song” in “Temporary Remedy”, you have a nice glimpse into the Harper style.
Harper’s rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” still feels like it was tailor-made for the Innocent Criminals, giving the whole band a chance to show off how much subtlety they can muster when they want to. “Steal My Kisses” features Jeremy Nelson in the role of human beat box and a strong bass melody on the part of bassist Juan Nelson. “Amen Omen” is a highlight, starting off with a nice piano melody, before the disc cuts to backstage footage of Harper talking about seeing Bob Marley in concert. The defiant pot anthem “Burn One Down” follows; a song that never seemed to fit on 1995’s Fight for Your Mind, “Burn One Down” definitely works in concert (even if you’re not actually in the crowd to witness the plumes of smoke that magically appear around you). That leads into the reggae feel of “With My Own Two Hands” (which then segues into a nice cover of Marley’s “War”). The reggae-tinged cuts probably fare the best of anything on Live at the Hollywood Bowl, seeming better suited to the relaxed posture that most of us will take while watching the performance.
Harper’s encore finds him starting out unaccompanied on acoustic guitar, a segment that’s become a highlight and a staple of recent tours. Here, he performs “Walk Away” and “Waiting on an Angel”, and as usual, his charisma and personal musical vision shine through. Those cuts, the following full-band “Blessed to be a Witness”, and everything that’s come before, however, hardly prepare you for Harper’s medley of “Like a King” and “I’ll Rise” (which Harper wrote as an homage to Maya Angelou’s poem “I’ll Rise”). Markedly different in tone—Harper’s acrid lyrics about lynch mobs and the LAPD stand in stark contrast to the less militant tone he’s previously maintained throughout the show—the songs also offer a spellbinding moment and a crowning moment for Harper. As he stands center-stage, intoning the lyrics almost like a mantra, his fist upraised, the song becomes less a performance than a personal meditation. It perfectly encapsulates Harper’s abilities as an artist and makes you walk away thinking “Maybe music can change the world after all.”
Live from the Hollywood Bowl also features behind-the-scenes clips and brief interview footage. While interesting in spots, nothing takes the place of 2002’s Pleasure + Pain documentary. Videos for “With My Own Two Hands” and “Diamonds on the Inside” are included, and both are kind of fun. A sound check performance of “Ground on Down” is magnificent. A couple of the menus are incredibly hard to read.