Ben Harper is an anomaly. An instinctive, mature performer whose acoustic-roots guitar makes him seem like an old soul at 26, this Inland Empire native’s ’93 debut, “Welcome to the Cruel World,” proved that conscious country-folk and blues could uplift a broad audience.
Harper leans toward bottom-heavy funk and Stevie Wonder-esque grooves in his live shows. As he capped off the set by singing the powerful words of Maya Angelou’s poem “I’ll Rise” with his fist dramatically stabbing the air, it was clear there’s one thing you can always expect from Ben Harper: He’s never predictable.
Whether opening for PJ Harvey or urbane hip-hop-flavored acts such as Luscious Jackson or the Fugees, Harper’s always full of surprises. True to form, he leaned back, pausing midsong in his old wooden chair to appreciate bassist Juan Nelson’s masterfully deep touch.
Genre-busting fusion trio, San Francisco’s Broun Fellinis, kicked things off with a short set that would’ve moved a smaller crowd, but became a nice background groove at this relatively cavernous venue. Then Harper — simply garbed in crimson Adidas, a scarlet flannel shirt and red nylon athletic pants — and his polyrhythmic band, the Innocent Criminals, doled out 13 songs from both albums, upping the ante with an inspired version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”
Percussionist Leon Mobley’s textured African drums, 20-year-old Oliver Charles’ cool-headed beats and bassist Nelson’s funky touch held their ground as Harper worked around technical snags throughout the evening. Songs about empowerment (“I’ll Rise”), community (“Burn One Down”) and disgust at irresponsible power brokers (“Excuse Me Mr.”) clash with the Tiger Beat-ish swoons that sweep stageside fans. That’s a shame, because Harper’s music has always pinpointed the message, not the messenger. And Harper’s message is a moral, emotive one that everyone can dance to.