On an idyllic night, Ben Harper performed to some 11,000 of his closest friends last night at Hollywood Bowl. The past few years has seen the veteran musician gravitate away from his trademark lap steel guitar in favor of a quieter, more soothing sound. Harper's explored many different genres of music, including folk, alt rock, blues, gospel and reggae.
A veteran who never quite became a household name, Harper's opened for folks like Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band and Neil Young, but can easily work a venue the size of the Bowl, as he showed last night. His current backing outfit, the Relentless 7, is more subdued than the band he played with during his most commercially-successful years, Innocent Criminals, but they complement the new Harper well.
Sporting short hair, a white T-shirt and jeans, Harper took fans on a 90-minute journey through different parts of his 20-year career. The first two-thirds of the set saw the Claremont-native helming the acoustic guitar, which made for great background music, but lulled the crowd into a sleepy haze.
One of the evening's memorable moments was when the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines joined Harper on-stage for a stirring version of Pink Floyd's “Mother.” A fellow unapologetic left-winger, Maines' vocals were haunting-yet-stirring and earned a raucous ovation. Many were surprised by her appearance (as they were by Rickie Lee Jones' two songs later), but she'd tweeted a picture of the show's soundcheck earlier in the day, so c'mon. Get with it.
“Hey mom, I'm playing the Hollywood Bowl,” the heavily tattooed singer said with a big grin, although he has played there several times in the past. “I've seen my mother and my children sing on this stage before. Three generations of family, wow!” He then launched into a soulful version of “Diamonds on the Inside.”
Things changed when Harper brought out Innocent Criminals percussionist Leon Mobley. The energy level went up and the crowd fed off the 42-year-old singer's heavy riffs and long, loud solos that would have made Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap proud. Songs like “Ground on Down” and “Burn One Down” from 1995's Fight For Your Mind were greeted like welcome old friends, and Harper showed that he could still play a mean lap steel. Naturally, lots of folks lit up, causing Harper to interrupt himself.
“I smell that stuff, and don't get kicked out before the end,” he said with a smile.
But the night's highlight was set closer “Where I Could Go,” when he stepped out to the front of the stage, hushed the crowd, and sang sans mic or musical accompaniment, which brought fans to their feet.
Fitz and the Tantrums opened for Harper and did their best to spread their infectious brand of indie pop to a new audience. Having completed the recording of their new album two days ago, singer Michael Fitzpatrick's energy was infectious, leading people to shake their hips and booties. “L.O.V.” and a cover of “Sweet Dreams” were big hits, and though they only had 40 minutes to perform, the Los Angeles natives gave folks a taste of what's to come on their forthcoming album.
Critical Bias: As a fan of Harper's louder Innocent Criminals material, I found the set a bit ambitious. Still, seeing him sing without a mic was very cool.
The Crowd: A cross-generational mix, which seemed to include a strong showing by my Facebook friends.
Random Notebook Dump: Why do I always get stuck behind a horrible old couple that can't stop making out?
Set list below: