The first word people usually toss around when asked to describe Ben Harper is "likable" -- an adjective that, when applied to most artists, tends to be construed as shorthand for nonthreatening, nonchallenging and easily digested.

The first word people usually toss around when asked to describe Ben Harper is “likable” — an adjective that, when applied to most artists, tends to be construed as shorthand for nonthreatening, nonchallenging and easily digested. Admittedly, the first of that adjectival trifecta fits the singer-guitarist like a glove, but as he proved at this sold-out perf, challenges lurk around many corners in Harper’s world.

Harper has done his best to emphasize that he’s part of a band — giving his longstanding combo, the Innocent Criminals, top-line billing on the recently released “Lifeline” album — but he didn’t take too long to assert his leadership here, opening the set with several minutes of fire-and-ice soloing (in the form of “11th Commandment”) before segueing into a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Well, Well, Well.”

Early in the two-hour program, Harper and band kept things at a slow simmer, pulling out of that mellow miasma just as somnolence was set to take hold — and doing so with a bang via a crackling rendition of “Gold to Me” that put the spotlight on the Criminals’ joined-at-the-pleasure-center rhythm section of Oliver Charles and Juan Nelson. Harper pushed that duo to the fore even more vividly by shooing the other band members offstage altogether for a spare, haunting take on “Whipping Boy.”

The individual players all had their moments, but at times –notably on dense versions of “Needed You Tonight” and “Say You Will” — their jockeying for position resulted in jams that whirled around in circles rather than hitting a steady forward-moving stride.

Harper put a rather dramatic stop to that stasis by stepping back from the microphone to silence the band, and the aud, so he could sing two verses of the set-closing “Where Could I Go” a capella, sans amplification — a gutsy move in a room this size. The singer proved up to the challenge, though, testifying with a pentecostal fervor that carried over into an encore highlighted by a steely cover of “Masters of War,” on which he was given an extra boost by guest vocals from opener Piers Faccini.

Faccini, a British-born, French-based singer with a propensity for whisper-soft stylings, conjured up memories of Jeff Buckley with his crystal-clear voice and rendingly dramatic range.

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals

Radio City Music Hall; 5,904 seats; $65 top

Production

Presented by Radio City Entertainment. Reviewed Sept. 15, 2007.

Cast

Band: Ben Harper, Michael Ward, Jason Yates, Oliver Charles, Juan Nelson, Leon Mobley.
Also:
Piers Faccini.
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