In The Flesh

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals
Royal Oak Music Theatre
July 22

Ben Harper’s been crafting his Weissenborn gospel since 1992, steadily blending the essences of Hendrix, Wonder and the bluesman canon with earthborn groove. Nowadays he’s beloved by the jam-band scene, appreciated by fans of Jack Johnson-style jangle, and respected as an American music auteur (his 2004 studio album was a soulful collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama.) Given this broad pedigree, it’s no surprise Harper’s Royal Oak Music Theatre appearance was packed to the gills. There he sat in his usual hard-backed chair, Weissenborn lap-steel hovering below his hands, backed by a five-piece band that included a full percussion setup. And when the fans around you are cheering for the bassist (longtime Innocent Criminal Juan Nelson), you know there are diehards afoot. Harper opened with “Ground on Down,” the fiery gospel rocker that echoed through college dormitories for the entirety of 1995. Continuing with a mix of old and new, fast and slow, his feel for both performance and response was pretty incredible. But he played with such an unassuming grace, it was difficult not to be swept along. Just ask the corduroy girls doing the elbows-out hippie dance in the back row. “Steal My Kisses” became Toots & the Maytals’ classic “Pressure Drop,” “Please Bleed” was a pleading epic, and “Burn One Down” broke down into a percussion clinic. Undoubtedly, after three hours and two encores (including the Motown nod “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”), each kind of Ben Harper fan had seen both glory and consequence.

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