In the final show of Ben Harper's fall solo acoustic tour, he single handedly brought down the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. One guy. A whole bunch of instruments. A completely rapt (and totally diverse, from race to age to gender) audience. You know it's going to be good when there's a standing ovation just because someone walks on stage.
That Disney stage creates kind of an in-the-round experience, as they fill the seats behind the stage as well, and all the seats seem to be good. People chatted about how many times they'd seen Ben Harper play, what they hoped he would play, if they'd heard his latest album with Charlie Musselwhite, if they'd seen him skate ... as genteel chamber music played and the seats slowly filled with lagging Angelenos.
Then the lights went out, and Harper came out to a thunderous ovation before one note had been played. Ever gracious, he accepted the love with wide waves, then sat down and picked up a banjo. All got quiet quick and WE LOVE YOU, BEN! Harper played a beautiful new instrumental, "The Long Road Home." The way the rolling notes of the banjo filled the acoustically perfect hall let us know this was going to be one night to remember. And that Ben has SKILLS.
"I was just talking with a friend and realized that this is the 20th anniversary of this next song. He asked me what I was going to do for that, and I said, 'I'm going to play it at Walt Disney Hall!" Loud cheers for that, of course, and "I was just sitting on a porch in Echo Park and out it tumbled." And out tumbled, "Welcome To The Cruel World" played on Harper's trademark Weissenborn guitar. Beautifully. It cannot be overstated how GOOD his instruments and voice sounded in this building ... like they were made for each other.
"People have to respect something in order to listen to it, which is the problem the government is having ... Government shut-downs?! When you have 20 million people without health care charging the White House, then you're really going to have a government shut-down!" Shades of the activist Harper were on display I LOVE YOU, BEN! as he lit into "Excuse Me, Mr." on his electric Fender, playing his pedals to strong effect in that space. That led into a story about meeting Lou Reed when they both played Carnegie Hall. Reed liked Ben's guitar so much that night that Harper sent it to him in the mail the following week. "If you want a New Yorker to not trust you, try to give them something!" Reed reciprocated and sent one of his own guitars back to Harper, of which a friend said, "Man, that looks dangerous.... This is for Lou." Lou got "Fight Outta You" - and so did we. He left it open for people to sing along at the end, which no one really did - except for the guy right next to me. Horribly, and off-key, and to every song. *Note to all: People are there to hear the artist they love play the songs they love - not your shower singing. Unless it's a sing-along, please never do that. Thanks.
Droves of people swarmed in during the applause, prompting Harper to remark, "I tried to make it by 7:30 on a Monday once in Los Angeles," making people laugh, but also noting the interruption. (There was Clipper game traffic, but still.) "Roses From My Friends", "Another Lonely Day", and "Diamonds On The Inside" were all played on acoustic guitar, all classics with the lovely ending flourishes that he puts on songs, and a humble wave in thanks.
BEN, I LOVE YOU! As Harper acknowledged yet another distracting, attention-needing shout-out, he said, "I love you too. As I've gotten older, the yells have gotten lower in octave ... which I think has followed the upward mobility of gay rights. In '94, you should've seen my black ass singing 'Mama's Got A Girlfriend' in Virgin Records. Now it's all 'I love the gays'. Yes, I'm Black. I'm a mixed bag, a mutt .... but once you've been racially-profiled and harassed by the cops enough, the 20th time, they pull you over and say, 'Mr. Harper, here's your Black Card." That became a story about how bookers would want to put him on bills with the Bad Brains or Living Color ... "You'd be amazed what Black people listen to ... I went to a P.E. show and it was all white folks!" That P.E. show became a riot with midgets running after them ... "Why is everyone running from midgets? Midgets will kick your ass ... You never see 'em coming!" This story never quite came in for a landing because Harper cracked himself up, and then said, "The talking bit I don't quite have down."
Harper said the highest honor is when his music is used in church, as many people have used his songs in their weddings, funerals, births, etc, though he said it can be a little daunting "When you say something at 20 that you may never say better." The tone quickly turned to romantic as he played a lovely acoustic "Forever". MY GIRLFRIEND AND I LOVE YOU, BEN!!
"You didn't come here for a course on racial relations, did you? (Yes, maybe we did.) Race is a smokescreen for the truth, which is we're all free to hate each other equally. (laughs, but I prefer love.) If they realize who they let in here and kick us out, we'll all meet on the court house steps and finish up over there." Had that happened, we all would have followed, happily. Anywhere, really.
These prominent gigs were not as easy to come by in 1994 and Harper told a story about being fed by friends at Toi on Sunset, "Toi kept us ALIVE!", living on sugar cookies, and playing with a hat out at Venice Beach (somehow I doubt that one ...) and being late for a gig at The Mint. They got rear-ended at a stoplight on the way, and because he was the car in front and had to make the gig, he hit the gas and got out of there. "Bounced!" They arrived at The Mint just in time to hear the last song by Mazzy Star, "Fade Into You". He then sat at the piano and played that gorgeous song for us. Bless him.
The Weissenborn returned for an instrumental medley that showed just exactly what the Disney Hall can do. "Mutt/All My Heart Can Take" were so resonant, so powerful, so just HOLY SHIT is he good, that when Harper slapped the strings with authority to end it, the crowd just erupted. I still have chills now writing about it. That was about to go right into the opening chords of the life-saving "Lifeline" when HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BEN! was bellowed (a month late) by a woman named Shawna (whose birthday is in December, we're all happy to know). Harper kindly returned the "Happy Birthday" and had an usher hand her his slide as a gift, and turned his chair to play to the back for her, with the condition that she return and have a similar conversation with Gustavo Dudamel (The L.A. Philharmonic conductor) during HIS show. Ha!
"After this long, all the shitheads are gone, and we all mean it," said Harper by means of introducing his next one on acoustic guitar, "Don't Give Up On Me Now." Judging from this night, he has absolutely nothing to worry about there. "You know, the laws are changing, there's a shifting of the tide, and I'd like to think I had something to do with helping certain laws become more liberal." He was on tour with reggae great (and one of my favorites) Damian Marley ("He's got his Black Card!") and Marley said, "(unintelligible rasta patois impression)" so I got my Jamaican interpreter and he said, 'Are you saying LIKE my fire or LIGHT my fire?" Harper smiled and said, "You know it's both!" and stood up walking around the entire stage singing "Burn One Down" to a delighted, totally on-board crowd that stood and cheered like crazy at the last chord, which ended the first set.
People stood and cheered until Harper returned and sat down saying, "2,500 of my closest friends!" He adjusted things and said, "Muddy Waters. John Lee Hooker. GNARLS BARKLEY!! began the shouting of names, but Harper's point was that "If they hadn't played with him yet, they KNEW him and wanted to play with him," to invite his most recent album's collaborator, Mr. Charlie Musselwhite out to join him!
Musselwhite sat down and opened his suitcase of harmonicas, Harper strapped on his Fender, and they proceeded to deliver us the real deal BLUES. "I'm In, I'm Out, And I'm Gone" showed how much these two coalesce their musicality together. "He came along and re-coded my genetics," was how Harper put it. They play off of each other seamlessly. "Don't Look Twice" had Harper switching to a jangly-stringed acoustic and together they completely FILLED the space with such amazing sound that at its end, Harper remarked, "I always wondered what it would sound like to be INSIDE a guitar. Now I know." I had been having the same thought before he said it. You were inside of and surrounded by every bent note.
"You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)" was soulful, mournful, legit blues, and then they played one "slated for Charlie and I's second record," LOVE YOU, CHARLIE! called "I Trust You To Dig My Grave". It's clear that these masters of their craft are having a total ball playing together, and it's extremely infectious as people clapped along and shouted like they were in a blues bar and not a symphony hall. Music this good will do that. Charlie and Ben left the stage to another standing ovation, richly earned.
Harper rewarded the fans with another encore, by sitting right down at the upright piano and playing a new one, "I'm Trying Not To Fall In Love With You". This is a dramatic one, with lots of thundering chords and excellent as ever lyrics. "This is just a game of (there was a pause so someone had to yell FOOLS! - Thanks.) Everyone knows about his guitar prowess, but it was a surprise to many that he throws down such piano chops as well (And would probably tear up a bassoon or a washboard or ANYthing else too. Being raised in a folk music store will do that). Harper's voice was as soaring as the high ceilings and when he slapped the piano keys at song's end, you couldn't hear yourself even think how good it was, the applause was so deafening.
INTO THE COLORS! came a request (that I don't recall being taken) from the balcony. "You wouldn't holler 'Mahler's 9th!' at Dudamel ... Let's respect the venue." Yes, let's. Instead, Harper played a lilting, folky-sounding version of "Steal My Kisses". He must have missed a note that I didn't hear, because he said, "Man, this is an unforgiving place." - meaning the acoustics, not the fans, who would forgive anything at this point.
Next came a special treat as Harper invited his Mother, Ellen, out to join him. They are working on an album together to come out THANK YOU, MOM! on Mother's Day next year, called "Childhood Home". They sat next to each other, she on acoustic, he on lap steel, to play a homesick for simpler times song called "City Of Dreams", written by his Mom. Simply lovely.
"This next song I've wanted to write my whole life, and I think I finally did," said Harper about the next one, "Born To Love You". Mother and Son harmonized so beautifully, as she sat behind him at the piano, singing and watching her child play. I have a lump in my throat and my eyes are welling now just at the memory of how heart-wrenchingly special it was.
I had a health scare with my own Mother earlier this year, and listening to this song about the love between a Mother and child being sung together by such angelic voices meant - BORN - to sing together, it was just so touching. I was a melted puddle of love. And I was not alone. YOU DID GOOD, MOM! She sure did. She and Ben hugged and she left the stage with a gracious wave.
Harper remained to play LOVE YOU, BEN! "Walk Away", his crusher of a break-up song, that he made quieter and quieter at its end to illustrate the walking away out that door. So good. Then we got the beautiful "Amen, Omen", a clear crowd favorite (that the guy next to me knew just about every third word to) and BEST SHOW EVER! save for the yells, it was quiet enough for him to sing away from the mic.
"I want to go real slow. It's never slow enough when it's something you hold dear." PLAY ALL NIGHT! "Then I'm the guy that plays all night." I'LL BUY YOU A BEER! "I WILL play for beer." SKATE LIFE! "I will do Lazers, yes." I LIKE YOUR GUITAR! "Thank you for that." It died down just long enough for Harper to say, "You play all your life to get to exactly where you're standing. Thank you all from my heart. I don't want it to end." No one did. Especially not when he began the distinctive opening chords to "Hallelujah". I'm of the school that thought after Jeff Buckley covered Leonard Cohen's majestic classic, no one should ever even try again. Until last night. Harper makes it his own with the Weissenborn chords echoing all over the hall until I was all choked up again. You could hear a HAIR drop in there, so caught up in it was everyone. Soaring held high notes that made the joint erupt in appreciative yells, it was heart-swelling. Glorious, and the sound in there made it all the more Heavenly. There couldn't be a more apt title for a song - Hallelujah! OK, NOW no one should ever do it again. Another massive standing ovation, more than earned.
On a lighter note, Harper picked up a ukulele and strolled the stage un-miked, serenading each and every corner of the venue with "Suzy Blue". The line where he sings Misery loves a symphony... got a laugh (but don't be at all surprised when he DOES perform a symphony in there. He will.), and everyone clapped along, with the buoyancy that comes with knowing you wouldn't rather be anywhere else, and everyone in there feels the same way. THANK YOU, BROTHER!
After effusive thanks to the audience and his road crew, and shout outs to Stoner Park skater friends, and apologizing for it being a work night, but not wanting it to be over just yet, KEEP US UP ALL NIGHT! Harper sat down to play a sublime acoustic version of "Power Of The Gospel". Powerful, for sure. It was silent (for once) as the audience sat in recognition of the extreme talent and power of MUSIC - to bring us together. To heal. To bless. To rejoice! "Amazing" is real over-used these days, but somehow it's about the only word that fits. "What do you do, retire after a gig like this?!" an equally amazed Harper wondered as he said his thanks, waved and left the stage, with everyone wanting much more. Let us hope he never does retire. The world needs this music. I can't think of really anyone else who so fully embraces all kinds of musical genres with such ease, comfort and soulful grace and gives it to us with all he's got, every time.
Now that I'm home and thinking about it all and so happy to have been there to share that glorious evening, I can say what had spontaneously burst out of so many people that couldn't contain it last night ... LOVE YOU, BEN!
Thank you, Ben, on behalf of everyone who has been blessed to be a witness of your full of wonder music.