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Ben Harper gets plenty of opening-night love from Crossroads KC crowd

Ben Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, stopped by Crossroads KC on Friday night to start their summer tour, playing a mix of folk, blues, reggae, soul and rock. And on a perfect late-spring evening, a crowd of more than 1,800 fans made sure it was a festive launch.
Ben Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, stopped by Crossroads KC on Friday night to start their summer tour, playing a mix of folk, blues, reggae, soul and rock. And on a perfect late-spring evening, a crowd of more than 1,800 fans made sure it was a festive launch.

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.

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.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

SET LIST

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.

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