Ben Harper outdoes himself at Hollywood Bowl with help from LA Phil

This site is pretty new — like two weeks old. So when I hit up the PR handling media for Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals‘ Friday night show at the Hollywood Bowl last week, I didn’t expect to get in. When I found out that I’d been approved by Ben’s team not only for a ticket but also to shoot, I was elated.

There are a number of things that made this show extra special. As I noted last week, this was the first time Ben and the Innocent Criminals had performed together at the infamous venue since a memorable 2003 show that was captured on video. That DVD made me fall in love with the Hollywood Bowl a decade before I’d ever step foot into it.

What also made this special was the band was backed up by the LA Philharmonic orchestra. If there’s any sort of higher power out there, this show was recorded for release because damn, it was magnificent.

Ben and his band shuffled through a half-dozen songs together — including a great rendition of “In the Colors.” That song came from the last album the Innocent Criminals lent their help on before this year’s Call It What It Is.

The set that came before the LA Phil would join them on stage was the title track from Ben’s 1994 debut album Welcome to the Cruel World. Though he’s never enjoyed much in the way of mainstream commercial success, there was something magnificent about seeing him on the massive Bowl stage more than 20 years later. There are plenty of acts that have enjoyed fleeting success that was quintuple what Ben has ever experienced at any given moment. But how many of those bands are still playing stages as big as this one?

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“I’ve NEVER had ANYTHING like this behind me.”
— Ben Harper on the LA Philharmonic backing him up

Next, Hollywood Bowl conductor Thomas Wilkins came out on stage and the LA Phil took their places behind the band.

“You were here back in 2012?” Wilkins asked Ben, referring to his last show at the venue that came without the Innocent Criminals.

“That is correct,” Ben said.

“Did you have something like this behind you?”

“I’ve never had anything like this behind me,” Harper said, earning laughter from the crowd.

Ben’s performance of “Amen Omen” from their 2003 show at the Bowl is one of my favorite live songs ever. But then Friday night I got a chance to experience it performed with a full orchestra behind it. When the violins come in right before the final breakdown of the song, I nearly lost it. In place of the guitar solo that Marc Ford delivered at the 2003 set was the full-swing orchestra. Then Ben came in with his chant of “I put your world into my veins” followed by the orchestra.

The arrangement for “Power of the Gospel” turned the song on its head. After strumming the lengthy intro on his guitar, Ben put the guitar away and just stood to deliver the vocals. The way in which he did so was how I imagine Nina Simone would have sang the song. The horns were particularly memorable on this song. they roared in as Ben delivered the poignant chorus. There was a dramatic pause that led to applause, before Ben launched into another verse.

“I put your world into my veins…”
— “Amen Omen”

Before the show I was wondering what songs would be arranged for the orchestra. There are so many that would fit, but I only guessed right on “Amen Omen” and “When She Believes.” Both are songs from his 2003 album Diamonds on the Inside. When Harper sang the line “I have heard a hundred violins crying,” it prompted the LA Phil violins to deliver their thunder. People were all smiles and chuckles when that happened.

At one point, Harper turned around and sat facing the orchestra, clearly in awe of what was around him. Then for the next few minutes Harper and the band jammed and people all around me were hooting and hollering.

“When She Believes” is particularly emotional, and when Harper and Co. finished, he shared words about what the song meant. Harper told the crowd about how when his oldest daughter was a baby he was finally able to rock her to sleep in his arms. “That’s when I realized, she believes in me. That’s what that song means.” A girl behind me sobbed a bit after hearing the story.

What came next was the last song from the new album, “Goodbye to You.” This shined even brighter with the orchestra than it does on the album.

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“Nothing is as beautiful as when she believes in me”
— “When She Believes”

“I know, I know — ‘Burn One Down,’ ‘Steal My Kisses,” Harper said, referencing notable songs that didn’t make the setlist. “I saw Radiohead at Outside Lands and was all ‘Fake Plastic Trees!’ ‘Creep!’ So I get it — but I’ll see y’all tomorrow at the Santa Barbara Bowl,” he added.

Clearly the Santa Barbara show would have a more standard setlist without the LA Phil. But I didn’t notice anyone that upset he didn’t play the bigger hits. People walked out of the venue at the end knowing they saw something special — something they probably won’t see again.

A guy slid up into the seat next to me at the end. He handed me a beer and asked how I enjoyed the show. Clearly I stood out as I’m about a decade younger than the median age there. After I told him it wasn’t my first Ben Harper rodeo but that I loved it, he said he had seen Ben all over the world — the UK, Denmark, all over the States. He said this show stood out among them and I couldn’t argue with him.

I never saw Ben Harper live until the first show reuniting with The Innocent Criminals last March at The Fillmore. I saw them four times total last year and caught their set at Amoeba in Hollywood a few months back. To shoot them together at the Hollywood Bowl brought things full circle for me because of the 2003 show. It felt as much like the band has come full circle and there’s definitely a renewed invigoration with this lineup. It’ll be fun to see where things take them — let’s just hope another show at the Bowl is somewhere in their future.

Photos and story by Mark E. Ortega

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals Setlist Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, CA, USA 2016, Call It What It Is Tour

WATCH BEN HARPER & THE INNOCENT CRIMINALS PERFORM “AMEN OMEN” WITH THE LA PHIL BELOW: