When Ben Harper performs his fiery brand of electric and acoustic folk-rock, people can’t help but sit up and take notice.
And when the singer-guitarist, who was born in Pomona, and his fine band headlined Universal on Saturday, in a sort of homecoming, the sellout crowd was entirely captivated by this rapidly rising local star who conjured the spirits of Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix even while confirming his own unique musical endowments.
The 30-year-old activist-minded musician made a strong connection with his worshipful fans even before he started the first song, accepting a bouquet of bright yellow sunflowers from a young lady in the first row and earning the first of many standing ovations, for which he appeared genuinely moved.
Harper then took his center-stage seat, grabbed his gold electric guitar (the first of an endless succession of different, beautiful instruments he would play) and drifted into the plaintive “Alone,” the lead track from his inspired 1999 album “Burn to Shine” (Virgin).
The song’s mournful guitar solo, insistent snare drum beats and moving lyrics showcased Harper’s ability to turn simple thoughts (“I don’t want to live alone”) into life-affirming energy.
From there the 105-minute show took on a magical life of its own as performers (Harper with bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth, percussionist David Leach) and listener together were swept away by the undeniable momentum of a show that celebrated love, life and the need for social justice and which brought together a bounty of musical inspiration.
Highlights were numerous and included the empowering funk of “Fight for Your Mind,” the heavy-rock of “Please Bleed” and “Unforgiven” (the latter employing Harper’s trademark hollow-neck Weissenborn guitar) and the soulful flow of “Gold to Me.” The hip-hop energy of “Steal My Kisses,” featuring a guest performer on human beatbox, even inspired Harper to jump up out of his chair and begin dancing on the drum riser.
During the second of two encores, Harper’s anthem “Oppression” smoothly segued into Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” followed by a smoldering take of Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
The excellent concert was capped by an explosive rendition of the Hendrix mind-bender “Manic Depression” that once again demonstrated Harper’s impressive command of his lap-bound guitar.