A0lthough they share fans with Widespread Panic and the Dead and recently played the Bonnaroo Festival, you would be hard pressed to include Ben Harper and Jack Johnson among the jam bands — especially Johnson, whose songs rarely crack the three-minute barrier. The point where they intersect with the jammers is with attitude rather than their playing — a certain lolling, cannabis-suffused organic bonhomie that cloaked the Hollywood Bowl during their co-headlining appearance.
Johnson’s slackly pleasant ditties bring a touch of salt-air tang but little else. The surfer-turned-filmmaker-turned-musician writes and plays music so “mellow” that at times it hardly seems there at all; his understated performance threatens to slide from “laid-back” into “laid-out.”
A musician of spectacular non-ambition, Johnson’s hourlong set rarely varies from the formula he’s set for himself: lilting melodies backed by clipped guitar chords, one- or two-note basslines marking the measure’s off-beats and sleepy, minimal drums. Minimally adorned, it’s a surprise when, during “Bubble,” Johnson plays a solo that lasts four bars — although, truth be told, it’s a one-bar figure repeated four times. It’s music that would be a perfect accompaniment if heard at the beach, a bonfire crackling in the distance, waves lapping at your feet. But it has the staying power of sea mist — it evaporates as soon it’s heard. As a surfer, Johnson looks to ride the most potent waves; as a musician he settles for mild swells.
If Johnson presents himself as a regular guy looking for the next fine time, Harper is turning himself into a practitioner of the cosmic love song. Tunes such as “Gold to Me” and “Blessed to Be a Witness” mingle secular and divine desire. He backs them with music influenced by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix — musicians weighted with a fair amount of transcendence. An able, talented student, he has yet to transcend his sources. “Hey Mister” draws from the propulsive, “Exodus”-era Marley, while “With These Two Hands” tips its “Rastaman Vibration” hand by segueing into a letter-perfect “War.” And his earnest cover of “Sexual Healing” never strays too far from Marvin Gaye.
The most effective material moves away from the lumpy rock of “Burn One Down” and “Amen Omen,” giving the night a streamlined appeal that’s mirrored by the band’s stylish Nudie suits. “Brown Eyed Blues” (from his recent Virgin release “Diamonds on the Inside”) looks toward the sleek country soul of Hi Records (although Juan Nelson’s bass solo seemed to be crammed in from another song) and “Glory and Consequence” simmers with a jazzy patina reminiscent of ‘Low Spark”-era Traffic.
Harper has also stepped back from the precipice of guitar heroism; except for the lap steel showcase of “Temporary Remedy,” former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford takes the solo spotlight, his playing most impressive on “Brown Eyed Blues.”