On their way to the Wakarusa Music Festival in Arkansas, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals stopped by Crossroads KC on Friday night to start their summer tour. And on a perfect late-spring evening, a crowd of more than 1,800 made sure it was a festive launch.
Harper plays several music styles — folk, blues, reggae, soul, rock. He indulged in each Friday night, favoring his folk tunes over the rest. He opened with “Better Way,”one of several songs with inspirational lyrics: “You have a right to your dreams / And don’t be denied.” It ended with the first of a few psychedelic jams, with Harper leading the way on his signature lap steel guitar.
He strapped on a six-string guitar for “Brown Eyed Blues,” a soulful rock tune that included a funky-jazzy solo by the Criminals’ animated bassist, Juan Nelson. Then came “Excuse Me Mr.,” an acoustic-blues ballad that featured a solo by percussionist Leon Mobley and some vocals that Harper sang through the sound hole of his guitar.
As a vocalist, Harper is at his best with his folk songs, when the arrangement doesn’t overwhelm his voice, as it did during “Ground on Down.” That one erupted into a scuzzy, wigged-out jam, with Harper unleashing his Jimi Hendrix on the lap steel.
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The mood changed quickly again, into “Diamonds on the Inside,” a poppy folk ballad with a strong Cat Stevens ring to it (Harper’s voice strongly resembles Stevens’). He followed that with another folk ballad, “Masterpiece,” one of his most romantic songs — “I love you for who you are / Loving you is my masterpiece.”
The show lasted more than two and a half hours and included nearly two dozen songs, including the seven-song encore. Throughout, he shared the spotlight with his five-piece band, which sounded in midseason form, and he thanked the crowd, which showered him all night with applause and affection.
There were more highlights: “Roses From My Friends” got a big ovation; Harper’s lap steel on that one was slow but smoldering. “Gold To Me” delivered some light funk/soul to the mix. During “Amen Omen,” some orchestrated arm-waving broke out up front.
Harper started the encore solo-acoustic and sang three songs, including “There Will Be a Light,” the title track of the album he recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama (which won a Grammy in 2005 for best gospel album). His band joined him on stage and provided some light percussion on “Oppression,” then went back to full-band mode for the rest of the encore.
They ended with “Glory and Consequence,” a psychedelic-soul song with steadfast lyrics: “I’m not as scared of dying / As I am of growing old.” After the band took its bows and departed, Harper remained on stage for a while, thanking the crowd over and over, applauding and waving. It was opening night of a tour that lasts through September, but it seemed like Ben Harper didn’t want it to end.
Better Way; Brown Eyed Blues; Excuse Me Mr.; Ground On Down; Diamonds on the Inside; Masterpiece; Don’t Take That Attitude to Your Grave; Burn to Shine; The Woman in You; Steal My Kisses; Roses From My Friends; Gold to Me; Amen Omen; The Will to Live; Mama’s Trippin’; With My Own Two Hands. Encore: Walk Away; Another Lonely Day; There Will Be a Light; Oppression; She’s Only Happy in the Sun; Burn One Down; Glory and Consequence.