Ben Harper and the Relentless7
If my stubborness brought me to an appalling and useless Starsailor concert, my scepticism was making me miss Ben Harper London debut with his new band the Relentless7. That would have been a mistake.
The first time I saw Ben Harper was in 1996. Believe it or not he was supporting Alanis Morissette in Rome. At the time (with no much money in my pockets) that was quite an attractive double bill for an open air live gig in Rome. I had just bought Fight For your Mind and was quite stunned by that album.
Ben Harper played a slot sitting, on his own, with his odd looking Weissenborn slide guitar on his lap.
He was singing about Oppression, Power of the Gospel and having lonely days. A brilliant performance which hooked me to the man for the years to follow.
Second time, I was already a UK resident and Ben Harper, with his band of many years, the Innocent Criminals played a date (probably more) at the Brixton Academy in London. November 2003, if my memory doesn’t fail it was around Diamond from the Inside period.
A reggae pearl followed by a set of very good music.
Despite it still being a nice show I had the perception that the man was losing power, losing grip with his band. As if his fuel was running short.
I expected something as Live From Mars brilliant double live CD, but it didn’t get very close to that.
The next Ben Harper albums confirm my concern.
Two gospel digressions with the Blind Boys of Alabama turned out to be actually very good but this is more due to the ability of the Blind Boys themselves than to Harper contribution. More than Ben Harper with the boys, it should have presented as Blind Boys of Alabama with Ben Harper.
Marketing rules always put the best seller first.
Both sides of the Gun is a massive 18 songs double CD which would have sound more solid if it was cut down to nine.
I didn’t bother to listen to Lifeline in depth. His 2007 last fatigue with the innocent Criminals is still a good soul album (Ben Harper never released a bad album) nevertheless my fear that the man was walking in a blind alley was becoming evident.
From all of this came my scepticism about this 2009 tour with a new band.
I was trying to answer the question: “Can Ben Harper still deliver? Is he out from the limbo where he got trapped?”. Hopefully internet age has got advantages unthinkable just few years ago.
A quick google search, few youtube/myspace browsing and I came in touch with the new sound. The four songs on the Relentless7 myspace proved to be my ticket insurance for the gig. With a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Good Times Bad Times and a soulful rendition of Prince’s Purple Rain with the voice duetting with a warm guitar, Ben Harper seems to have understood that his “soul mine” was exhausted and opted for a twist toward an honest classic rock sound with a bluesy edge. A U-turn to get out of the dead end.
I was seduced to go.
Despite the name (before googleing, I was expecting a seven members sort of horns filled band) Relentless7 are a basic four members rock line-up.
In addition to Ben Harper, vocals and his guitars, the best bit on board is Jason Mozersky a young Austin guitarist, already appearing on Both Sides of the Gun.
Here he is promoted to lead, a brilliant Jimmy Page/Billy Gibbons inspired technique, he only needs to be contained to avoid overdoing and excessive show off.
Jesse Ingalls (bass)and Jordan Richardson (drums) are the powerful rhythm session that can comfortably support the fervour of those 2 guitars in their most vigorous moments.
This London date is the first ever of the proper tour, after just three USA appearances at different events.
From the setlist that I snap from the carpet, it is clear Harper is committed to a new phase of his career.
Concert opens with Better Way, from Both Side of the guns. Judging by the amount of guitar supplied anyone understood what the way is even before the concept of the night emerged from the lyrics:
“…what good is a man
Who won’t take a stand
What good is a cynic
With no better plan
Take your face out of your hands
And clear your eyes
You have a right to your dreams
And don’t be denied
I believe in a better way”
Than they had the courage to play, in almost the exact sequence (as read on Amazon pre-sale page), White Lies for Dark Times their upcoming album, in its entirety.
The first songs are a sort of electric storm that in some solos seems to go out of Ben Harper’s control. He is swallowed by the powerful trio and needs to fight to stay there, pushing hard and breaking strings on its eletric lap-steel.
Shimmer and Shine is the best tune out of this opening set.
When (finally?) the Gibson SG leaves space to a Firebird, Ben Harper can relax and embrace a 12 string acoustic to deliver the first ballad of the night.
Skin Thin sounds, in fact, quite a “thick” song. Surprisingly seeing him in a more familiar atmosphere is less exciting than the half hour of rapturous rock they just played.
Keep it together is without contest my pick of the night.
A song that already ranks high on the list of best classic rock song of the last 2 decades. A mixture of everything Ben Harper is.
It kicks off with the man on wah-wah-plugged lap-steel; just to kick away the Jimi’s ghost who is always dawdling around him. The band enters with a steady riff the remind me of Led Zeppelin Kashmir before Harper sings a couple of verses to bring the whole into a blues duet between the two guitars. He indeed “keeps it together”, everything is in a perfect balance, including Ben’s voice that up to this point didn’t have a lot of space to show off.
The main show moves back to another ballad The Word Suicide that calms the audience down to prepare them for the grand final.
Boots Like These signs the time for the drummer to show off. He pounds his cymbals with an impressive energy using cotton coated timpani mallets that deepen the sound even more. Ben standing as an orchestra director stops and restart this solemn pace, jamming with the rest of the band.
The four leave the stage in an ovation. Quite impressive considering no one had listened to any of these songs in advance.
There’s more. The encore opens with a song not appearing on the snap of the list.
Another Lonely day from Fight For your Mind is the wonderful proof that I am in front of the same guy singin along on a stage in Rome 13 years ago.
I was hoping for the Purple Rain cover when the bass riff introduces Under Pressure, ther Relentless7 rendition of Bowie/Queen‘s hit.
English audience goes mad, expectedly, but Isincerely this was the low of the night.
Ben Harper voice is not suitable and the song has a pop edge that can’t fit with a hard-rock line-up. The melodic part midway through the song make me thing of The Killers which is not really what the rest of the concert appeared to be.
Up to you now closes a night that reassured me about Ben Harper’s future.
The new band sounds as an injection of life for a man that just a year ago sounded a bit lost.
You may have noticed this set of pictures is sharper, with not much blur and quite crisp details.
This set of pictures has also a wider dinamic range, which means many more shades of grey between the black and white for the pleasure of the eye.
This is not because I changed my cameras, lens, film.
This is not because I wasn’t drunk, I don’t drink while shooting.
This is for a much simpler event.
At this Ben Harper‘s gig there was excellent lighting.
You can use whichever media you like to take photographs, digital, film, polaroid, kodak disk, lomo or large format sheets, there is one thing which will always be the basis of everything. One thing that determines the output. The Light.
Without light there is no photography. It is like a painter without colours. Light is our tool.
If a gig is played in the dark (= no light) and it is forbidden to use flash (= your personal source of light) the photographer’s chances are much more limited. Which doesn’t mean it is impossible to take pictures, otherwise 90% of the pics on this site will not exist, it means the options restricted.
When a clever artist and a professional light technician brings light on stage (at least for the three songs photographers are there) the image quality comes out better. (they can still be dull and obvious but technically you can’t argue they are better).
In this particular show I was able, leaving ISO at my usual 800, to shoot with a speed between 1/60 and 1/250s, with an aperture between f/4 and f/5.6
I could think and play with the depth of field, focusing was easier and the mind can concentrate more on the photograph instead of how to impress the support with something. These are the results.
Apart from the usual bloody microphone in front of Ben Harper‘s mouth.
That is still the biggest single unsolved problem of concert photography.