Ben Harper Returns To The Hollywood Bowl For The Fourth Time With His Innocent Criminals Check out our thoughts and photos from the amazing performance
LOS ANGELES, CA- Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending a cocktail reception on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. There’s something magical about it, and… as a non-musician… simply setting foot on that legendary platform was an otherworldly experience. World-renowned musicians long to grace the stage of the iconic Hollywood Bowl even just once in their lifetimes. Ben Harper has done it four times.
On September 11, 2019, Ben Harper and his Innocent Criminals (bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles, and percussionist Leon Mobley) returned to the Hollywood Bowl for another memorable performance. Though there may not have been as much pomp and circumstance for this show as his 2016 featured performance accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, this evening was a celebration of being in the present, amongst friends and lovers, under the Hollywood stars.
The music for the evening opened with a lively performance by the enigmatic and unpredictable Neneh Cheery. Perhaps best known for her 1988 smash hit “Buffalo Stance”, Neneh has steadily, albeit slowly, released music that has pushed musical boundaries and upended expectations.
Her latest effort, and fifth full-length, studio album, Broken Politics, was released on October 19, 2018. While it is imbued with all of the quirky, sonic flourishes and vibrancy that one expects from Neneh’s music, it’s an album that also sounds, and feels, more introspective.
Neneh’s set featured many of the track from Broken Politics. While her fans may have been hoping for the energetic strut of “Buffalo Stance”, they got a bit of that flavor from her performance of the Broken Politics track “Natural Skin Deep”. She did, however, perform some classic cuts like the Portishead-esque “Woman” and the rebelliously sassy “Manchild”.
On this day, September 11, with the venue’s flags drawn at half-mast, I almost expected Ben to take a moment during the performance to express his personal feelings regarding the social and/or political climate that we are currently in. He has, at other performances, spoken softly about his “do no harm” ethos, giving his fans the right to take his guitars away if he ever uses them to cause harm. But, Ben and his Innocent Criminals were just spoke through the music on this evening.
Prior to his taking the stage, he had a peer read some prose concerning, based on my recollection, General Joseph Hooker following the battle of Chancellorsville. Though I couldn’t fully take in the reading during its performance, nor find text on the interwebs afterward, I learned through research this was a battle that was won through sheer military cunning by the Confederate Army despite being greatly outnumbered. We all know how the Civil War turned out, but this was clearly a dark moment for the Union. Perhaps this was Ben’s way of speaking on the times. One can only speculate.
While there were plenty of light-hearted and heart-string pulling songs (“Gold To Me”, “Steal Me Kisses”, “Burn One Down”, “Walk Away”) there were also plenty of songs that served as a call to action or a statement of the times. Their cover of Band Of Gypsys’ version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” was a political and sonic statement that is as relevant today as it ever was with its lyrics “Machine gun/Tearing my body all apart”. Songs like “Fight For Your Mind” and “Better Way” are affirmations for the soul; suggestions on how to be a better member of the world community.
Throughout the performance, Ben gave each member of the Innocent Criminals a chance to shine, particularly bassist Juan Nelson, who engaged Ben in a little musical repartee with Ben during the performance of “Fight For Your Mind”, proclaiming, “That’s all I’ve Got to Say, ” after ripping through an amazing solo. After Juan snuck in a little “Owner of a Lonely Heart” riff, all Ben could do was tip his wide-brimmed fedora.
But the real music highlight, other than the selection of songs that were included in the setlist, was Ben’s masterful work on his slide guitar. As his dextrous hands danced all about the neck of his guitar, and his face espoused the emotions of the moment, the slide sang its lilting melodies. The tones were sublime. It looks so easy on the big LED screens, but you know it’s taken him years to achieve that skill. A car alarm went off during “Walk Away” and into his mind-blowing slide-guitar solo, but even that sonic distraction couldn’t ruin the experience, because when beauty begets beauty, you can’t help but be enamoured with the moment.