Innocent no more, Ben Harper holds service at Wait Chapel
Ben Harper shows the “Power of the Gospel” to fans at Wake Forest’s Wait Chapel. (photo by Ryan Snyder)
It’s not a complete overhaul per se, but Ben Harper’s new band Relentless7 does represent a reinvention of sorts. While Harper’s name might forever be synonymous with his fiery, five-man folk-soul backing band of 12 albums over eight years, the Innocent Criminals, the time was right for a slight change of trajectory. Whether that change was justification to trim his increasingly bloated album credits list or to simply cut tired staples
like “Burn One Down” and “Steal My Kisses” from his set lists, the slimmed-down backing trio Relentless7 was his out. Yet, as the crowd’s repeated pleas for the old favorites during his April 21 performance at Wait Chapel would attest, those songs might define him more than his accompaniment ever could.
The rub on Harper from the outset of his new arrangement, however, was that he seemed to be just another band member. He was guilty of ceding too much to the thoroughly capable guitarist Jason Mozersky, while those coming to Harper’s live shows to hear him lay down the gospel on lap steel left a little unfulfilled. This was not the case at the Wake Forest gig, as Harper took the point from the moment he stepped foot on stage, eschewing Relentless7’s heavier, more demonstrably bluesy edge for an opening mini-set of acoustic numbers. Even more surprising was that the first two songs of the set came from the 15-year old album Fight For Your Mind, though “Power Of The Gospel” was more than appropriate considering his sanctified surroundings.
Harper wrapped up the charged solo overture with “There Will Be a Light,” along with the first of many thank-yous to the inadequately gracious audience, as his three bandmates took their posts and wasted no time in offering up a barrage of material from Relentless7’s White Lies For Dark Times. In regards to the Wake Forest-heavy crowd, the show organizers appeared to forego ticketing midway into the set of opener Alberta Cross in order to shore up the seemingly inconsolable paid-attendance figures. The apathy that was met at the box office carried over into the show itself as well, as those with their noses buried in their iPads looked to have confused the rock concert happening before them with their study group at Smith Reynolds.
Harper, on the other hand, was fully engaged in showing just how hard he could rock, which is really the crux of his artistic reincarnation into Relentless7. There’d be no “Sexual Healing” cover or any “Steal My Kisses” no matter how hard a few voices screamed for them. Instead, the band greeted the audience with the jarring drum intro to “Shimmer & Shine” before peeling off two more outright rockers from the latest album. Mozersky is a terrific lead, reveling in the Cream-y classic rock influences that pays delicious compliment to Harper’s incorrigibly bluesy tendencies. The engine behind Relentless7, however, is drummer Jordan Richardson. Richardson retains most of the funk edge of the Criminals’ Dean Butterworth, but plays so cerebrally and with so much vitality that he established himself as the band’s true driving force. There’s little wiggle room when working with Harper’s outwardly expressive voice — the Innocent Criminals were often seen going hands-off when Harper went on one of his vocal tangents — but Richardson never hesitated to step in to keep up the show’s insatiable momentum.
Yet no matter how often Harper alluded to the band’s egalitarianism, there were times when his overpowering charisma carried the show. In between a cover of Hendrix’s “Red House” and his own oldie “Give a Man a Home,” he paid reverence to the beauty of Wait Chapel’s service bells with an improvised piece on lap steel reminiscent of Duane Allman’s “Little Martha,” one of the few moments the band was allowed to simply smolder in his wake.
On the occasion when Harper delved back in his songbook, he offered some rather novel interpretations consistent with the new approach. While his current bandmates did appear on 2006’s Both Sides of a Gun, “Better Way” was one of the last vestiges of the Innocent Criminals. Here, Harper traded the soulful psychedelia for wall-to-wall distortion, dissolving into atonal shrieks rescued by a timely fill from Richardson that introduced set-ender “Up To You Now.” His impassioned cries clearly struck a chord with someone, as possibly the loudest F-bomb ever uttered in the hallowed chapel accompanied the proclamation that Harper is indeed “the man.”
Fight For Your Mind was once again heavy on Harper’s mind, as he opened his five-song encore with rarity “Please Me Like You Want To,” but the shows most resounding moment came during the most current of Harper’s carefully crafted covers, as he clapped his hands and snapped his fingers into Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Jesse Ingalls unshackled the song’s infamous bass line from its ignominious fate, though did Harper take undue liberties with the profound quietude of the song’s final line. The show’s explosive light show looked surreal through the stained glass from without as Harper paid his final respects to the venue with “Serve Your Soul.” No doubt a few went home disappointed from the alien set list, but surely just as many Harper fans went hom feeling born again.