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Ben Harper: 5 May 2009 – Webster Hall, New York City

Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner

Ben Harper: 5 May 2009 – Webster Hall, New York City

It's been over a year and a half since Ben Harper's last release (2007's Lifeline, recorded in Paris with the Innocent Criminals), but three years since anything of his has really reverberated on American shores (his bifurcated 2006 effort, Both Sides of The Gun). He's huge in Europe. But despite the prevalence of francophones and the excitement of releasing yet another work (White Lies for Dark Times, this time recorded with a new trio, calling themselves the Relentless7) Harper and the Relentless7 eased into the new repertoire. Opening with Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times" deliberately instilled the raw, punishing but harmonic hard rock tone that embodies the new album. "Better Way" became a passionately hard effort on its own (sans tablas), and proved an apt segue from old to new songs.

Just because the songs were relatively new hardly meant they'd be trimmed for presentation purposes. Rather the night seemed like a liberation of the White Lies material into the live realm. Tonight they became mature, living, breathing songs that reacted and responded to other stimuli. "Keeping It Together" became an extended jam, with Harper relishing Jason Mozersky's transcendent solo and channeling its scope during his own turn on the slide guitar. The lyrics became even darker (pre-Obama composing I assume?) on "The World Suicide". Harper sang, "The world suicide is irresponsible", the refrain "Love is an old heirloom" echoing like a piece of nostalgia from more compassionate times. The intro of "Lay There and Hate Me" was soft but soulful, sensuous three-part "oohs" over a funky shuffle as laid down by drummer Jordan Richardson -- not unlike "Superstition". It then became an impassioned diatribe against a resentful lover, full of Harper's lyrical symmetry, "Ain't no fool like the fool you love."

But the cynical tone of the lyrics didn't overwhelm. Harper was so taken by the crowd's support that he asked for a mulligan on "Fly One Time". An instrument cable input caused a jarring interruption at its most delicate moment so Harper, wanting to give the song's intimacy justice, indulged himself by righting the wrong. Amazingly, the crowd was as excited by the slow tune the second time around. The slow encore number, "Another Lonely Day", was equally well received, the entire crowd singing along in unison. Injecting new life into his covers catalogue Harper et al busted into Queen's "Under Pressure" after teasing he'd never honor another "Sexual Healing" request. The concert should have ended then but they carried on for a few more, wanting to initiate yet more new tunes into the live arena.

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