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Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals at the Hollywood Bowl 8/19/16. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for www.BlurredCulture.com.

Ben Harper has played the Hollywood Bowl before … but never like this. On August 19th, 2016, the multi-Grammy award winning artist was joined on the stage at the landmark venue by both his Innocent Criminals and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Thomas Wilkins. It was, and pardon the cliche, “a once in a lifetime musical experience”. With orchestral arrangements masterfully crafted by world-renowned arranger/composer/conductor David Campbell, Ben took his music to new heights that his fans had never heard before.

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals took the stage sans the L.A. Phil to start the performance; and their union on stage was a sight for my sore eyes and ears. Having reunited in 2015 after a seven year hiatus, and releasing a new album earlier this year (“Call it What It Is”), listening to them exchange melodic themes and watching them, as they watched each other, jam revealed to me that the musical camaraderie and cohesiveness that I heard on “Burn To Shine” was still shining bright. That sense of community on stage permeated through the audience, which was proved when Ben asked the Hollywood Bowl audience to sing happy birthday for their lead guitarist, Jason Mozersky.  It was perhaps the most in tune version of “Happy Birthday” sung by 17,000 people that I’ve ever heard.

After playing a selection of songs with the Innocent Criminals, Ben introduced the L.A. Phil to the audience.  As each member of the orchestra marched on stage with their instruments to take their seats, Ben’s face lit up like a child. The overwhelmed look of joyous disbelief on his face said it all. The orchestra started to tune their instruments, and Ben added with a smile:

“Have you ever had something like this behind you? I’ve NEVER had anything like this behind me […] That’s a lot of innocent criminals, huh?”

The audience cheered in agreement.

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals at the Hollywood Bowl 8/19/16. Setlist.When Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals commenced the collaborative portions of the concert with the L.A. Phil, I was instantly mesmerized. David Campbell’s arrangements were so nuanced and so carefully crafted, no detail was spared to expand upon and enhance the mood and flavor of Ben’s music. Right off the bat with the first song, “Call It What It Is”, the social political heaviness of the subject matter was given an even greater weight with the orchestral accompaniment. Ben sang about how it was a “crime to be black”, and when the horn section stormed in during the lyrics “call it what it is, murder” … man … to call it ominous would be an understatement.

The orchestration of next song, “Amen Omen”, was just as powerful. A mostly acoustic performance on the album recording, I was taken aback when the string sections (I’m assuming violins and violas) came in with pizzicato flourishes. As Ben sang “I put your world into my veins”, those pizzicato lines were like a sonic syringe that injected the music into our heads.

Ben is an emotional singer, but for a greater portion of the concert he wore a fedora with a large brim that shaded his face. He took his fedora off, however, when stood up from his custom made slide-guitar chair to sing “Power of The Gospel”. As he sang that emotional song, with the Hollywood Bowl’s spotlight shining down on him center stage, we could all witness his soul emanating from his being. You could see it in his face; his desire to move the audience to believe in hope and to believe in salvation. He was preaching his own gospel and to see the urgency on his face as he sang that song was truly moving.

After pouring his soul out to the audience, Ben took a moment for himself with the next song. “I’m going to join my new band here,” Ben said, turning his seat around to face orchestra. Clearly, Ben wanted to take this moment to appreciate the unique opportunity afforded him, and to become enveloped in the sound of the orchestral accompaniment while he performed his instrumental masterpiece “All My Heart Can Take”. A personal aside, there was a moment during “All My Heart Can Take” when I thought he was going to segue into one of my favorite instrumental pieces “The Three of Us” from “Welcome To The Cruel World”. It didn’t happen, but I’ll tell you … my anticipation of the possibility of it happening had me on the edge of my seat.

And this leads me to what was perhaps one of the more revealing moments of the event. At one point during the concert, several voices from the audience shouted song requests of some of Ben’s more well known hits. Ben addressed the suggestions by stating the following:

“Look … I was at Outsidelands, and I saw Radiohead, and I was like ‘Fake Plastic Trees’! So I know… I know… ‘Burn One Down’, ‘Kisses’ … I know. But we’re on another level tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow in Santa Barbara.”

Ben was absolutely right.  This was no ordinary concert. This was Ben’s moment to hand-pick selections from his extensive catalog, to take that art, and create fine art that will only exist in that one singular  moment (unless it was recorded for posterity, in which case … um … can I get a copy?).

Certain songs I’m sure he selected for personal reasons (like “When She Believes” which he wrote from his personal experience rocking his oldest daughter to sleep as a child) and certain songs I’m sure he selected because he knew that an orchestra would instill a new passion to the music which he had created (“How Dark Is Gone” is definitely a song that was meant to be backed by a full orchestra). Sure, it would have been “fun” for the audience to have David Campbell write an arrangement for “Burn One Down” and “Steal My Kisses”, but those pieces, as fun as they are to listen to, just couldn’t have held a candle to the to emotional masterpieces that were performed on this evening at the Hollywood Bowl.

For his encore, Ben Harper performed “Better Way”, the end lyrics of which repeat, “I believe in a better way”. Ben, I believe you did it in the best way.

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