Burnin' One Down - Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
Brixton Academy, 29/11/03.
Californian born Ben Harper has been ploughing his own furrow for over a decade now, making his own music his own way. Mixing reggae, blues, rock, folk, funk and gospel into one heady brew, Harper remains a mostly unknown phenomenon in the UK - two consecutive nights at the Brixton Academy are the first gigs he has played in London since 1998 (saving a whistle stop layover in May this year). He has come to the
relative intimacy of the 4, 500 capacity Academy from three sold out nights at Paris' 14, 000 capacity Bercy Stadium. Indeed fully half of this European tour was played in France, where Harper is regarded as a musical genius.
The gig begins with a full on light assault to a backing tape of some heavy North African drumming. Given Harper's spiritual tendencies, it comes as no surprise that the lights are in the green, gold and red of the Rastafarian Religion. And then the lights fade and Harper and guitarist Matt Ford launch into the bone-crunching riff of 'Glory and
Consequence' as the audience goes wild. Next from the Harper songbook is the protest anthem, 'Excuse Me Mister', and by now the problems with the vocals that had marred the opening have largely been solved and the audience is completely at Harper's mercy. In response he brings forward percussionist Leon Mobley for the beginning of his Bob Marley-styled anthem to the joys of marijuana, 'Burn One Down';
'Let us burn one from end to end
and pass it over to me my friend'
Inevitably, half the audience takes this as an invitation, and soon the air is filled with that certain smell that indicates that not all the roll ups on display are entirely legal. Mobley is incredible, prowling the stage with one drum from which he coaxes and beats the most extraordinary rhythms and sounds. Harper indulges in a call and response display with the audience that for most other performers would be unthinkable three songs into a set.
Judging his audience perfectly, Harper then produces his lap steel guitar and launches into a dark and brooding version of 'Whipping Boy' which is redolent with the ghosts of the Mississippi Delta, which is segued immaculately into the heavy funk of 'Temporary Remedy', and by this time even the jaded bar staff are dancing as they pour pints.
There is a temporary respite while Harper changes guitars yet again, and then the band propel themselves into 'Brown Eyed Blues', a song co-written by bassist Juan Nelson, and it provides Nelson with his moment to shine. Bass solos generally are to be considered inadvisable, but Nelsons astonishing, virtuoso display as Harper retreats to the back of the stage is a highlight of the evening and draws a huge
response from the audience.
Nelson is also spectacular in his secondary role in the band, as a human beat box during the crowd favourite 'Steal My Kisses', producing an incredible array of percussive noises, again to the delight of the audience.
And so the show continues to the last song of the regular set, the self-empowerment anthem 'With My own Two Hands' and Bob Marley's 'War'. Harper himself is now a whirling dervish, completely subsumed by the music, as are most of the audience. And then the band are gone, although there is little doubt that there will be an encore.
Remarkably, it is only now that one realises Harper has not spoken a word since taking to the stage. There are no witty anecdotes from this slender figure in jeans and silk shirt, no amusing stories about how these songs came to be written, about who in the band is the worst travelling companion. Harper prefers to let his music do the communicating for him, and in that sense it is a primal experience. Communication between the audience and the performer is an entirely artistic level, from the music, which in a very real sense seems to flow through Harper rather than emanating from him.
He returns to the stage alone, clutching only an acoustic guitar and plays through a min-set list of acoustic songs, starting with the delicate, flamenco flavoured instrumental of 'The Three of Us' and leading into 'The Power of the Gospel', reinvented as a delta-tinged piece of country blues and, as Harper sings, it is undeniable that this is music that heals - Harper may be singing about the Christian Gospel, but such is the power of the performance that it is transformed into Truth for all of us. A beautiful rendition of 'Another Lonely Day' an intensely felt 'Widow of a Living Man', Harpers lament for domestic abuse, several others and the band re-emerges from the wings. Mobley and drummer Oliver Charles then lay down the powerful rhythm of 'Like A King' and the show takes it's most remarkable turn yet. 'Like a King' is itself a huge slice of protest rock, an angry assault on the LAPD following the attack on Rodney King, but by now, such meanings have been transcended and this a song for every member of the audience, a battle cry for the common man, regardless of race or creed.
Following it is the finale, Harper's musical setting of Maya Angelou's poem 'I'll Rise'
'You may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lies,
you may trod me down in the very dirt.
And still like the dust, I'll rise.
Does my happiness upset you?'
Amazingly, half way through the song, the band falls silent and Harper walks to the front of the stage, and raising his fist in a black power salute, sings a verse of the song without the aid of the microphone, his suddenly small and fragile voice seemingly cast adrift in the auditorium. It is a bravura piece of showmanship, a literally show stopping moment as the audience explode into spontaneous applause that
appears to genuinely move Harper beyond even his own expectations. As the band close out the song with Harper now dancing round the stage like a man possessed, fully two thirds of the audience have their fists raised in salute. Normally, a predominantly white audience giving a black power salute would seem absurd, but such is the power of Ben
Harpers performance that he has united the audience across such petty boundaries. This is a salute of solidarity and respect.
Rather than leave the stage at the end of the show, the band huddle together and then form an orderly line, soaking up and acknowledging the rapturous applause. Harper gives his longest speech of the night in thanks for the support of the audience and then, in single file, each with his own salute, the band leave the stage.
Musical alchemy of the type achieved by Ben Harper is rare enough. To combine it with the powers of a modern day shaman in such a unifying and genuinely healing way is little short of miraculous. It can only be hoped that it will be considerably less than five years before he returns to London.