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.