KCRW annually puts together a fantastically diverse lineup for its Sounds Eclectic benefit concert, but on paper this year’s bill — mostly leaning toward the indie rock side of the spectrum — looked a little bereft (where was the hip-hop?). In fact, it may have been the most musically satisfying Sounds Eclectic night yet, thanks mostly to a star-making performance long overdue from Ben Harper and a charming, gorgeous (and unfortunately short) set from the lovely Australian chanteuse Sia.
Harper’s large cult of fans have been singing his praises for well over a decade but — until now — his live show has often been dulled by his reliance on sitting and playing lap steel with a small band, a mode that doesn’t allow his songs much room. But on this night he brought a 10-piece band, including multiple percussionists and a full string section, to play the best songs from his career, though the concentration was on his just-released double-disk Virgin record “Both Sides of the Gun.”
He opened with one of those new songs, the raging, moody “Better Way,” a song that culminates with an emotional scream; in that moment it seemed that Harper let his demons out, allowing himself the license to behave as a frontman — roaming the stage, coming out into the audience and climbing on amps to accentuate his songs.
His music’s still derivative — hints of everything from the Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix to Santana creeps into all of Harper’s best songs — but it seems that he’s now owned up to his allegiances to the classic rock pantheon, writing songs that belong in it. For “With My Own Two Hands,” a reggae-rocker that conjures images of Bob Marley, Harper had Bob’s son Ziggy join him onstage, before segueing into Marley’s “War.” It was a captivating moment, and one that Harper’s been chasing for years.
Sia, one of the vocalists for minimalist electronic group Zero 7, was a last-minute addition to the bill, but hers ended up one of the best-received sets of the night. Wisely, mostly staying away from her disappointing solo album, “Colour the Small One,” (Systematic), Sia instead played torch singer, jazzing up Zero 7 songs with a voice that reaches for the stars. “Distractions” (or as she called it, “the I Love You song”) especially benefited from the new arrangement: thumping upright bass lines enunciated the song’s broken-hearted themes, leading to a standing ovation that Sia seemed genuinely surprised to receive.
Elsewhere on the bill, surprise guest Franz Ferdinand blasted through an energetic set eaten up by the maniacally dancing audience; Brit roots-rockers Gomez stripped down to a three-piece for a preview of their new ATO album “How We Operate” (due in May), the highlights of which were the McCartney-esque “GirlShapedLoveDrug” and a Harper sit-in on a re-working of “Whippin’ Picadilly,” and Feist showed that her guitar skills are as adept as her high-flying voice, playing blues-soaked leads that could qualify her as a counselor at Bonnie Raitt’s guitar-hero camp.
Death Cab for Cutie had the unenviable task of headlining after Harper and Franz; not surprisingly, their cerebral indie-rock was lost on much of the audience, who headed home (or to Z-Trip’s VIP DJ set) confident that they weren’t going to miss the night’s highlights.