Photographs by Daniela Tantalo.
Following over two and a half hours of Ben Harper at Massey Hall last night, I can’t think of a better place to see the man and it appeared that Mr. Harper probably thought the same.
It might sound a little more daunting on paper, but California guitarist and singer Ben Harper brought his Innocent Criminals along for one serious love in that felt like only an hour. I managed to forget my phone at home so had no concept of time for the evening. The proceedings were scheduled to begin at 8 but I’m guessing they went on earlier than that.
Performing in front of a backdrop and modest lighting, Harper and his five cohorts gave the full house a schooling on a thrilling tough through various musical styles with lots of substance. Simply put, the band was on fire. Touring behind their latest, the freshly released Call It What It Is, the Criminals played a master class set that even had the most jaded out of their chairs by the end of the night.
Opening with “When the Sex Was Dirty” off the latest album, someone forgot to plug something in as the band was barely audible for what seemed like an eternity. The situation was rectified quickly bringing out an approving roar from the crowd. From then on the sound was pristine. Playing acoustic, electric and slide guitars, Harper’s playing was solid and that voice soared through the room bathing it in warmth.
For those that arrived at the assumed 9PM start, you missed out on some of the hits that Harper dished out early; a crowd-rousing “Steal My Kisses” and “Excuse Me Mr.” but everything went over a hit regardless. Thankfully the new material which they showcased generously, fit in nicely with the set, notably the emotional title track taking aim at the racial divide in America.
The rest of the band, including a Neil Young nephew apparently, was just as impressive with their instruments as Harper. Their interplay with the crowd and each other made for a good sound and vibe coming from the stage. The room itself, not lost on Harper, had a “little something” special that Harper felt and we all did too. I’ve also seen two bongo drum solos in the last week and I have to be honest, I really like it.
There was a feeble attempt to hotbox the room during stoner hit “Burn One Down” but any hazy thoughts were blasted out by a ferocious “Faded”. Closing out the set with a jaw-dropping “Where Could I Go” seeing Harper at the lip of the stage projecting that voice sans-microphone, reducing the crowd to virtual silence before a raucous finale.
They would return for a much deserved encore and to bask and give some love that overwhelmed the room. I’ve seen Harper a number of times before in the past and last night was by far the best and fiercest. He was calm and loving, angry and raw, and happy and care-free. He blended rock, funk, folk, and soul and made one impressive musical stew. And no doubt the room played a part in serving up the perfect meal for an adoring crowd that lapped every bit of it up. Here’s to a swift return.