FOR THE RECORD-Ben Harper Live @ The Lowry (28/04/14)
By Our Side.
Spirits kindred. I just knew Ben Harper was my favourite singer/songwriter not named 'The Boss' that is this generations American legend and icon Bruce Springsteen when I read it. When I read years after listening to his music that he was actually a huge basketball and Los Angeles Lakers fan...like me! When I saw that he used to read the Los Angeles Times sports section every morning over breakfast, growing up to be captivated by the "3D" (I think Ben's pictured it perfectly here) words of the late, great, Pulitzer writer Jim Murray...my sportswriting inspiration. No wonder I have the lyrics to 'Morning Yearning' tacked on my wall next to Springsteen's 'Secret Garden' for everyday inspiration. No wonder I was moved to tears hearing one of my favourite actors, the late Heath Ledger directed the beautiful video of that song, while Harper returned the favour by writing 'Happy Everafter In Your Eyes' as a personalized lullaby for Heath to sing to his daughter. No wonder seeing this amazing acoustic setlist with the girl who not only introduced me to my favourite singer but the love of my life too-who I so happily got to show how good this singer really is this night-was something so special. I just hope somehow, somewhere Ben gets to read this over a cup of coffee, toast and two scrambled eggs like something from Murray's mind and just see how much this all means to this small town kid with a California soul thanks to guys like these.
Now the question is how does the hardest working man in music with more bands to his aid than a box of plasters manage to fit in an acoustic tour? Because judging from the back of my tour t-shirt bought from the merchandise stand, he's only getting started in a tour list so epic it over runs the two and a half hour sets he put into this epic one man and his strings concert series. The hardest working man who has made classic albums with The Innocent Criminals ('Burn To Shine'), The Blind Boys Of Alabama ('There Will Be A Light'), Relentless7 ('White Lies For Dark Times'), Fistful Of Mercy ('As I Call You Down'), and most recently blues legend Charlie Musselwhite, for the Grammy winning 'Get Up' album that is about to have its own sequel, has got more for his classic catalogue that is as amazing and underrated as his own legend. The guy that's always on hand with the classic covers (see, hear 'Sexual Healing' by Marvin Gaye or INXS' 'Never Tear Us Apart') or compilation and soundtrack soundbites (from his 'Strawberry Fields' Beatles cover for 'I Am Sam' or his 'Beautiful Boy' mastering for the John Lennon tribute album) has got more off the shelf and is about to release another duet album, but this time with his mum Ellen Harper in 'My Childhood Home' to mark this American mothers day. Still you could buy and preview this wonderful work here via an early release on the merch stand, or the fact that Harper brings his mother dearest out for a couple of new classics during this concert including the tear and nostalgia moving, opposite Vandross values of 'A House Is A Home' from the snow swept off the front porch to the dogs bare-bone backyard.
Ben also build with this tours stellar support act Tom Freund, who comes out on classic cello bass to show the type of backing he gave Harper before he was famous on the 'Pleasure And Pain' days. Still just like 'Give 'Till It's Gone' and 'Fight For Your Mind', Harper sings and shows he is more than just the getting by from the little help from his friends going solo. Set in the Shakespeare ready Lowrey theatre in music capital Manchester's outstanding oasis of the Salford Quays this postcard, picture picturesque place is the perfect setting for even more boundless beauty and also doubles up as the sunny Summer underscore to your day and perfectly still, abroad feeling, peaceful tranquillity after dark hidden treasure of this big city. Decked out in his trademark shirt, jeans and three stripes combo with his new trademark fedora, Ben Harper's amazing array of incredible instruments from his families half-century running record store adorn the Lebowski style rungs that tie his concerts together. From the pianos to the acoustics and the legendary sitting slide and two little boxes you and he before they came into the store had never seen before. The last time this writer saw someone as big as this on the personal acoustics of this more intimate setting it was the prolific Ryan Adams in the bunker Barbican theatre in London and this gig had the same look and feel it may as well have been the same place with this vast auditorium hidden-away in Manchester's quietest get away. As soon as Ben began 'The Power Of The Gospel' front-stage, guitar in hand without a microphone the room was his, as strong in faith and following as his word. No talking, no photographs and certainly, strictly no phones, this is how live music should be and after seeing him live first at a crowded festival it was much better to get physically and musically closer to one of the modern greats. Even my friend who got to see him in Paris first and now got to hear some of the 'Paris, Sunrise', 'Fight Outta You, 'Lifeline' album tracks that where recorded in this French city knew this was something special.
Following showing how vast his vocals really where, he extended his range to his influential instruments and family and friends amazing us with his versatile sound, style and catalogue. Ben once said that the trouble with his music in this digital day and age of iTunes cherry picking is that someone looking for a hard-rock track may be turned off if they come across one of Ben's beautiful ballads or vice versa but after night even the most ardent, arms crossed, concert bring-a-long will be converted to fandom. From the meaningful 'Excuse Me Mr' Lenny Kravitz 'Mr. Cab Driver' (with the shadows of his stetson, brim-low making him look like he was wearing some trademark Kravitz shades) like moments to the epic screaming shouts of believing in a 'Better Way' these words really did "feel pleasant as they fell upon our ears". Sublime songs like 'Forever' and 'Another Lonely Day' where given their fond favouritism as where old and new classics like 'Welcome To The Cruel World' and 'Don't Give Up On Me Now' alike that even with their dark depths showed the lyrical lessons learned in all Harper's classic, 'Both Sides Of The Gun', coin-sided couplets. Even when you thought this set was going to be short and sweet, the ever sincere star returned hat off and head bowed to gratefully grace us with an epic encore all the way to the 'Amen Omen' signature and inspirational instrumental sign off-minus microphone once again-that reminds us just how real this guys range is from 'Suzie Blues' bliss on the uke, to new Musselwhite music with the forthcoming 'I Trust You To Dig My Grave' dedication. Between some serious storytelling that kept us all engaged and closer with helpings of heart and humour, Harper 'Ground One Down' and also gave us a 'Hallelujah' for a new classic cover showing that from all he does for others to what he brings himself this is truly one of the artists of our time with just a few of his signature strokes shown on this set. As the unplugged Ben Harper laid it all out, simple and plain over acoustics, nothing could sound more eclectic or electric. TIM DAVID HARVEY.