Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals | 06.11.15

Ben-Harper 75Twenty years in, they show the polish of rock ‘n’ roll greats, but played with the vitality of a band in their prime.


Ben-Harper 500

The Pageant, St. Louis

It’s not every show that starts with fans bringing flowers to the stage to show their appreciation for the artist, but that was how the evening began for Ben Harper as the Innocent Criminals took the stage.  The gesture halted the show before it even started, as Harper stopped to acknowledge the act and thank all in attendance. It had been some time since he’d visited St. Louis, or toured with The Innocent Criminals. In the time span since their last release, Lifeline, Harper has released a number of collaborations. It’s fair to say each release built off threads from his prior work. Harper has remained active during his time with The Innocent Criminals, from his two albums with Relentless7, to his band effort with Dhani Harrison and Joseph Author–Fistful of Mercy, to his collaborations with Charlie Musselwhite and his own mother Ellen Harper. Ben Harper has refined the requisite aspects of his abilities in the rock, psychedelic, blues, and folk aesthetics that informed each of those releases respectively. The net result of that work has brought Harper full circle, touring again with his longtime band, The Innocent Criminals, who can do it all, and do it well.

In what is now customary, Harper alternated between playing seated and standing, electric and acoustic, with variations of slide guitar. He switched from his signature Weissenborn acoustics, of which he had several, a lap-steel slide, or, in one case, pedal steel while standing. The variety in his approach echoed the variety in the set, which saw The Innocent Criminals flexing all of their musical muscles. They were in good spirits and rare form, incredible fluidity and complimentary to one another. They played with balance, from bluesy ballads, to twangy folk, to soulful balladry, to outright rock, to roots reggae, to funky doo-wop and back. But it felt natural and was warmly received—so much so that Harper took a moment to declare, “Someday, a rock ‘n’ roll journalist is going to say Ben Harper has the best fans in the world. This set … it’s a journey, and you’ve come along with us.” The graciousness and sincerity in this declaration underscored the general candor Harper had throughout the night, as he told personal stories between songs, detailing his own connections to St. Louis.

There were many points of punctuation—thanks to stellar highlights—a few of which were provided by Leon Mobley scrambling from his riser to the front of the stage and back to vary percussion. Juan Nelson’s unyielding groove and virtuoso bass work, which are easily overlooked when listening to The Innocent Criminals recordings, have always been a showcase for Harper’s talents above all else.  Though Harper shined brightly, the entire band showed its value time and time again. Jason Yates alternated between upright piano, hammond B-3, and synthesizers, many times in the same song, providing vibes, melodies, and leads that took the place of guitar. Mike Ward’s leads and rhythm carried the band at times where Harper might have been left to do so in their four-piece days. He was crisp and elaborated on his solos with his ace fretwork. Oliver Charles locked the band down with his work behind the kit, an act that must have been akin to juggling, given the manner in which the ensemble could quiet themselves to a whisper, and surge up to a storm instantaneously.

Eventually Mobley, Nelson, Ward, and Yates would all join in vocally in layered four-part harmony with Harper for “A Better Way,” to close out the night, creating tonal colors that washed over the audience from the stage. Twenty years in, they show the polish of rock ‘n’ roll greats, but played with the vitality of a band in their prime. It’s fair to say that they actually are. Harper would go on to say, “We’re going down to Bonnaroo; I wish we could take you all with us!” I’m sure many in the audience wished we could just keep them there. But alas, the show could not go on, not here, but Harper left the audience pleased and eager for the future. He urged us to “Call It What It Is,” an opportunity for joy, of which he is grateful to be a part in building with us and with The Innocent Criminals, who have proven their worth as his peers. | Willie Edward Smith


Burn to Shine

Glory & Consequence

Steel My Kisses

Like Gold

Mama’s Got a Girlfriend

Don’t take that Attitude to Your Grave / Concrete Jungle (Bob Marley & the Wailers) Medley

Brown Eyed Blues

Diamonds on the Inside

Masterpiece (Rickie Lee Jones)

Roses from my Friends

Amen Omen


Burn One Down

Black Rain

With My Own Two Hands


Paris Sunrise #7—Solo


Walk Away—Solo

Welcome to the Cruel World

Homeless Child

From the Ground on Down

A Better Way

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