Late in his show Monday night at the Belly Up, Ben Harper abruptly pulled the plug on his band, the five-piece Innocent Criminals. Standing alone at center stage, barely even strumming his acoustic guitar and his voice a near-falsetto whisper, Harper turned the mood from rocking to pin-drop silent on a dime. He didn't even need to hush the crowd with a word; the audience was that much in his hands.
Harper finished the first solo tune, the solemn "Roses From My Friends," got the expected huge ovation, and by the time he began the next song, the harrowing "Widow of a Living Man," the packed floor was quiet again. After a quick equipment change, it was time for another sharp turn. The Innocent Criminals re-emerged for a blistering version of "Better Way," from the new CD "Both Sides of the Gun." Harper wailed, both on the lyrics - he literally screamed out the lines, "Reality is sharp/It cuts at me like a knife" - and on the Weissenborn, a lap-slide guitar that is his signature instrument. The transition wasn't just in volume, but in mood, sound and style.
It says a lot that I can't decide which side of Harper I prefer: the downcast solo singer prompting the listener to lean in close, or the rocker blasting away with a full band. These are two distinct identities; Harper uses a different set of skills in each mode, and it is impressive as hell that he can switch from one to the other and back and apparently not lose even a portion of the crowd.While exposing these various talents, Harper did seem to leave one part of himself off the stage Monday, the second night of a two-night stand. Noticeably absent from his set list were the easier-going songs that seem to make their way onto commercial radio. Focusing largely on the more heavy-hitting emotions, in the songs "Serve Your Soul," "Excuse Me Mr." and "The Will to Live," and drawing heavily from the new CD, Harper didn't play "Steal My Kisses," "Burn to Shine" or "Diamonds on the Inside," his best-known works. You got the feeling that if he had, the club might have exploded.
Instead of the breezy hits, the crowd got Harper at his deepest and experienced one of the most nakedly emotional singers of the day, whether he was whispering or screaming.Stewart Oksenhorn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org