"Chicago, thanks for being the home of the blues and thanks for being home to us for so many years."
With this line, Ben Harper looked out into the crowd at the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island and completed a roaring night of music. Ben, now a polished live performer, has been visiting Chicago since the mid-'90s while along the way bridging a strong connection between his music and fans in this city. Whenever Ben and his band come to town, they bring with them a desire to say thank you, musically, to crowds that continue to come out to see them. Chatting with bassist Juan Nelson after the show, he told me that Chicago has always been one of the best cities for them -- more than most other spots in the country.
Tonight, at a sold-out and quite full venue, the Innocent Criminals decided to throw down from the get go by kicking off the show with a searing "Faded." This song set the tone for the evening, with Ben inserting a lengthy groove on his custom Asher lap steel. The vibe created at that moment would continue to burn bright for the next 2.5 hours, with the band launching into "Both Sides of the Gun," "Steal My Kisses," which featured a great scat by Nelson, and "Diamonds on the Inside."
Moments later, with some of the more popular tracks out of the way, Ben produced his signature piece, the hollow-necked Weissenborn that was first crafted in the 1920s. He's said that this is the only instrument that truly channels his music. It was about this guitar that Ben first spoke so passionately to me during our very first interview in 1997. There was a way in which he talked about it that made me realize that they're one in the same. Neither can function without the other. In a way, the guitar is Ben's muse while at the same time his mouthpiece. Tonight, the words spoken through that exceptional tool created a bit of magic; the sound it sent out enraptured the crowd to a point of near possession.
And it was during the powerfully moving "Black Rain" where the lyrics bore Ben's frustrations with our government and how it handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He laid out how, at the end of the day, it's people that will help people get through life -- not some over-educated guy in a blue suit making some phone calls. Ben looked at the travesty that ripped through New Orleans and asked why. He's still asking why and empowered the crowd to do the same.
Before the main set ended, Ben welcomed tour mate Damian Marley out to join him, who was accompanied by another band mate brandishing a Jamaican flag. While he waved it out over the crowd, the band broke through with Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up." With the lights turned up onto the crowd, Ben and Damian switched off singing verses of the revolutionary track. There was something about that moment that reminded me of seeing Ziggy Marley in Negril, Jamaica, performing at a spot overlooking the Caribbean back in 1993. There's an energy that wakes up when a Marley child sings his father's songs. The vibe sparks a sense of unity and one love. That vibe permeated Northerly Island.
After the set, Ben gifted the crowd with his acoustic set, which in
the past spanned three, maybe four songs. Tonight, he performed six
(including a long instrumental jam), including the somber "Another
Lonely Day" and the lovelorn "By My Side."
When Ben's on stage by himself, nary a person to coordinate music with, does he know exactly what he's going to play or does he, if the moment takes him, allow himself to veer from his scheduled set list and play whatever he wants? During the jam, Ben went off on a musical tangent that could've been something he came up with over the last few days or maybe he was riffing on a feeling? But perhaps like Ben, I digress.
At one point, following the painful and self-reflective "Walk Away" in the acoustic set, Ben looked up, put his hands on his pedal steel and peered out into the crowd. He sat quietly, taking everything in, knowing that this crowd was there to see him. When Ben first starting performing and building a following, he played with such humility that he almost couldn't look into the collective eye of the crowd when he was thanking them from the stage. Tonight, there was a glimmer of that humility, despite the number of years that he's spent becoming the performer he is. He has an assuredness about himself yet deep down appreciates what fans have given him. There's something to be said for a performer who can still connect with his audience on that level. After pouring out his heart with "Walk Away," Ben confessed that "it hurts to play that song."
The encore brought the band back together for a handful of tracks, including Marvin Gay's mesmerizing "Sexual Healing," which Ben has been playing for more than a decade. In the middle, he plopped in a dose of "Let's Get it On," and then moved off to "Burn One Down." Pulling the entire night together, with its high-level of joyful energy, was a song that charged the audience and closed the set: "A Better Way." He sang: "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."
Music moves people to do great things, to
live in a better way. Bob Marley was called a revolutionary. He is also
one of Ben Harper's biggest influences. With lyrics and insight
offering guidance, Ben has the power to do great things.
Tonight's show was definitely one of them.
[photo credit: Evil Vince]
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