Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals at Britt Festival, Jacksonville, OR- 7/22
Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals taunted and attacked sound through the many instruments they sweetly, potently and passionately demolished, while leaving them entirely intact. There was a sense of something powerful ripped from the depth of Harper’s being, exorcised onto stage. Impassioned death thrall vulnerability, rode a wave of hard-metal percussion, electric gospel, poetic protest and reggae baths. His vocal range was extensive, exquisite, interesting and unique. Harper played with volume and depth, creating his own back-up vocals in well spaced tracks pulled and pushed from the amplified vortex of the mic. Yelling beauty along unseen grooves in space, he bit at the air as if tearing flesh from the bone. Not satisfied to simply let sound emanate or entertain, he interacted with its arrival. At moments the whole band stopped completely, sat in pause that gave meaning, then started again. The guitars and bass continually rebuilt walls to be knocked down by the conscientious metal explosion. Harper’s voice met this intensity and rested sweetly within it.
The first 2 songs (Gold To Me & God Fearing Man) were performed with Harper seated, playing a lap steel. The instrument was highly sensitized and reverberated in ways that reminded me of a theremin. With the slightest touch, the strings jumped like overworked teeth at the dentist. His hands moved feather-like and slapped the instrument, every now and then acquiescing with a strum that filled the open air venue as if it were a closed stadium. Standing up with a guitar for, Burn To Shine, followed by, Diamonds on the Inside, he sealed his mouth into a hum, putting his passion behind a tenser gate that amplified its power in soft, clear, unmistakable tones. As he described it, “Singing the way I was meant to sing.” He then grabbed maracas, proclaiming, “Oh no! The leader with maracas!” The drummer, Oliver Charles, stepped over to the percussion station of Leon Mobley and watched, with awe, as Mobley smacked his fingers clear of prints on cymbal and hand drum, while Charles played shakers. Jason Mozersky pulled the reigns up out of rhythm with a guitar solo yell that pierced a few more holes in the air. Juan Nelson’s blue shirt flew like Batman’s cape behind him, as his bass plucked a landing pad for the musical attack.
Playing slide, acoustic and electric guitars, Ben Harper dug into the music. He pulled it from a source beyond the simple chords through which it traveled. Touching something deep, the music was crafted with heart and zeal that shook the tender wisps of longing, pain, healing and love, all inhabiting the same landscape within a human being. The slide guitar was haunting. Sending small hairs along my body lunging for the horizon, only managing to pull my skin to prickled ridges. I could have laid down to sleep in the soft tenderness of his voice and smooth, energized pull of the slide guitar, amidst the tumultuous pummeling of hard resounding rock that shook this soft beast.
Gospel incantations streamed from Harper’s mouth. A master at drawing blood from the impassioned heart of the audience, he repeated phrases with grit, asked for a witness, even wiped a bug from his face—in doing so, missed the window for the next verse—so instead repeated, “pain, pain, pain,” with more coarse burning fervor, as if, Show Me a Little Shame, was born to hold this vocal scat. A reggae rhythm soon wiggled hips right out from under a few of the remaining (seemingly unsuspecting) seated patrons, forcing their legs upright.
A large brimmed hat sheathed half of Harper’s face in shadow a majority of the night. Each time he looked up elicited a dramatic effect. He removed the hat at only one point, for a moment, in the chorus of I’ll Rise as he chanted, “You may shoot me with your words. You may cut me with your eyes. And I’ll Rise…I’ll rise…I’ll rise, rise rise. Out of the shacks of history’s shame. Up from a past rooted in pain…I’ll Rise…I’ll Rise…I’ll Rise, rise, rise.” He bared his face, showed an open window to a soul in the current times we live, then placed the hat once more. All hats should be so well utilized.
A stellar, brave, powerful, poetic and skilled musician performing for over 20 years, Ben Harper ended the 4 song encore with a very genuine thank you to the audience, “For all you’ve given us over the years.” The sentiment was mutual.