Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals | 06.10.07

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live_harperHarper's gifts are many. He's an incredible, soulful singer and a highly accomplished guitarist with a unique ability to engage his audience with both hard-driving, guitar-wailing rock 'n' roll songs and quiet, thoughtful acoustic ballads.





w/The Nightwatchman

The Pageant, St. Louis

Like a fine wine, Ben Harper only seems to grow better with age.  Now 37, his voice is smoother, fuller and wiser, and his guitar playing is bolder, sharper and more robust than ever. From the very first note of his set at The Pageant, he let loose on his lap slide guitar with the Led Zeppelin classic "Dazed and Confused," giving the sellout crowd exactly what they came to hear—a true musician in the prime of his career.  

Harper's gifts are many. He's an incredible, soulful singer and a highly accomplished guitarist with a unique ability to engage his audience with both hard-driving, guitar-wailing rock 'n' roll songs and quiet, thoughtful acoustic ballads. Like the man himself, his songwriting is always emotionally and politically charged.

Watching Harper work a guitar is a truly astounding thing. His signature instrument is the Weissenborn, a hollow-neck acoustic Hawaiian lap slide guitar from the 1920s that produces a wide range of resonating tones. Harper's level of skill on this extremely rare instrument (it is estimated that fewer than 5,000 originals were produced and unknown how many now survive) was highlighted in a stellar solo performance of  "The Star Spangled Banner," which he reprised on national television two nights later at the NBA Playoff game in Cleveland.

Though the Weissenborn is Harper's specialty, he plays an arsenal of both acoustic and electric guitars, among them a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Special, a Fender Custom Shop Telecaster and a Vintage Gibson J-50.

Guitar lovers at the show got a special treat when Harper was joined onstage by show opener Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, who played an earlier acoustic set under his folk-rock alias "The Nightwatchman."  A critically acclaimed master of guitar effects, Morello was ranked #26 on Rolling Stone's list of "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time." 

Harper and Morello ripped through an intense rendition of Bob Dylan's 1963 Vietnam War protest song, "Masters of War," taking turns singing the verses that resonate perhaps even more today than when it was originally written. It seems as if this song is a direct, personal letter to George Bush.  Morello, whose music has always been about making political statements, actually holds an honors degree in political science from Harvard. He had just returned to the States days earlier from playing the "Move Against G8" Rally in Germany and the "London Show to Bring the Troops Home."

Another "HIGHlight" of the show, so to speak, was Harper's ode to the ganja "Burn One Down," performed acoustically with The Innocent Criminals' renowned percussionist Leon Mobley. Mobley's unique blend of congas, bongos, tambourines and other unique percussion instruments also spiced up a cover of Bob Marley's classic freedom song "Exodus," much to the crowd's delight.

Harper played several tracks from his acclaimed double-album Both Sides of the Gun including ballads "Morning Yearning" and "Waiting for You," as well as encores "Black Rain" and "Better Way."

Rounding out the rest of The Innocent Criminals lineup were bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles, Grammy-winning guitarist Michael Ward and keyboardist/ Hammond B3 organist Jason Yates. This is a super-tight group of musicians who are all at the top of their game, and it shows. Harper may get most of the glory, but these guys are the solid backbone.

All in all, an evening spent with Ben Harper and his Innocent Criminals was a true musical delight, highly recommended. You can still catch Harper on tour this summer, including a stop at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., where Harper will join Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and The Roots drummer ?uestlove for the annual midnight SuperJam. | Amy Burger


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