Friday night, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals headline the Hollywood Bowl (joined by the Los Angeles Philharmonic). It’s their first performance at the venue together since first headlining a show there August 3, 2003, a show which was recorded and later sold on DVD with an EP accompanying it. Here we revisit that epic night, compare where the newly-reformed band is now while also providing some background on the group.
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my oldest brother came back home for vacation from college with a burned compilation disc of Ben Harper songs. Some were studio recordings, others were live renditions of his songs. This was back during the peak of file-sharing applications, maybe around 2001-2002.
I didn’t know anything about his music at the time but quickly fell in love with it. I was on a big singer-songwriter kick at the time and Ben Harper seemed to me to be the most dynamic of the bunch. The fact that he could bounce between different genres from song to song so seamlessly was unlike anything I’d come across to that point. His cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” from his Live from Mars live compilation album stood out because of my familiarity with the original and Harper’s stripped take on it (still in my opinion the best out there — sorry Kygo). But his original songs on this CD my brother made me quickly became favorites — “Please Bleed,” “Walk Away,” and “Another Lonely Day” chief among them.
The way in which I became a fan of his — word of mouth via my brother — is not a unique one. In the stirring Danny Clinch-directed 2000 documentary on Harper called Pleasure + Pain (a must-watch), a segment where Harper asks a crowd at a show how they came upon his music for the first time was responded to overwhelmingly when he asked how many people found out about Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals from a friend. With very little commercial radio play in his career (only two of their songs together charted on the US adult Billboard charts), the band’s fanbase was built mostly via word of mouth.
By the time I reached high school, I was a super fan. The Live at the Hollywood Bowl DVD was released in November, just two months after the show took place at the Bowl. I nabbed a copy of it while on a field trip to San Francisco with my journalism class. We were able to explore the city on our own after checking out a local news station, and I spent that time at Rasputin Music where I copped the DVD as well as the Pleasure + Pain documentary used.
I watched that Live at the Hollywood Bowl DVD so many times that I wore it out and had to get a new one. It was in a constant loop on my DVD player for years, perfect for putting on in the background while I tried to work on my writing. What made this DVD so inspiring aside from the fact it’s such a fantastic performance from the band is the interspliced interview segments between songs. As someone who had never been to Los Angeles for any real amount of time until I was probably 19 (and certainly not the Hollywood Bowl), it provided me some context as to what made that venue so special. It also made me thirst to one day get the chance to see a show there.
The show itself is magnificent. So many of their songs shine brighter in a live setting versus on their studio albums. “Brown Eyed Blues” is groovy as hell with its wah-wah sound. The extended jams within each song brings out the best in each member — particularly bassist Juan Nelson and percussionist Leon Mobley.
The peak of the set comes about midway through on “Amen Omen,” probably one of my favorite live versions of any song ever (see below). The slow build pays off massively with an insane breakdown after one of the final choruses. Harper holds a note for a mesmerizing amount of time before allowing Marc Ford to deliver an epic almost Lindsey Buckingham-esque solo. It all comes back to Harper’s somewhat improvisational close to the song. He revisits a line from the last verse, “I put your world into my veins,” chanting it over and over with as much passion as you could ever hope for. I almost don’t even remember how the studio version of this song sounds because this is the only version I’ll listen to. It gives me goosebumps every time without fail.
These interview segments also provide an inside look at what the band’s dynamic was at a time that was pretty close to their peak of commercial success. They were touring in support of Diamonds on the Inside, their fourth studio album together. The title track from that album peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard U.S. Adult chart, one of only two singles of theirs to chart.
“It’s just about chemistry and musical chemistry and growing musically in a like direction,” Harper said during one of these segments on the Hollywood Bowl DVD. “And that’s not easy for two, three, it’s not even easy for someone to grow in a direction that they can live with inside themselves. I hope it lasts. It’s obviously lasted with some of the members and certain members have come and gone.”
Though they follow-up double-album effort Both Sides of the Gun would chart higher at No. 7 on U.S. charts to No. 9 for Diamonds, the latter rates as their best album in my mind. It also seems like the albums that came after this one were when Harper started looking elsewhere. He did an album with The Blind Boys of Alabama called There Will Be a Light in 2004 before 2006’s Both Sides and 2007’s Lifeline. In the eight-year gap that Ben separated from the Innocent Criminals, he recorded with an outfit he called the Relentless7 (2009), an album with Charlie Musselwhite (2013’s Get Up!), and even an album with his mother Ellen Harper (2014’s Childhood Home).
After exploring these various other projects, it felt like the timing was right for him to come back around to working with the Innocent Criminals. The way some bands have benefited from members going off and doing side projects (look at the freshness of Radiohead after Thom Yorke and the other members went and did their own thing in between for instance), Harper & the Innocent Criminals have as well. This year’s album Call It What It Is was an extremely strong effort.
I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the reformed Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals five times since it came together last year, including their very first show back at San Francisco’s The Fillmore in March 2015, the first of four nights at the famed venue. That night stood as one of the best shows I saw all year.
The players have shuffled around a bit. Bassist Nelson and percussionist Mobley are back and they were the backbone of the group during its peak. Keyboardist Jason Yates and drummer Oliver Charles are also back. Guitarist Marc Ford was only with them a brief period around the time the Bowl show took place before he was called back to rejoin the Black Crowes. Michael Ward was the studio guitarist on Call It What It Is but he’s since been replaced on live shows by Relentless7 guitarist Jason Mozersky. I’ve only seen him perform with them once — for an in-store at Amoeba Hollywood and he seemed more than capable. That was the first gig I saw any of the new material performed live and it sounded fantastic, particularly “Deeper and Deeper.”
Harper and his crew are just as capable as they’ve ever been and might even have a little more passion for it after taking a lengthy break to do other things. The times I’ve seen them in the last 18 months, they look like they’re enjoying themselves just as much as they looked to be while on stage during that 2003 show at the Bowl. I’m looking forward to an opportunity to see that magic happen in person after wearing through that DVD with over 1,000 plays.
WATCH BEN HARPER & THE INNOCENT CRIMINALS PERFORM “CALL IT WHAT IT IS” ON KIMMEL: