Review: Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals at the AEC Theatre

More than two decades after blending folk with blues and reggae with a modern soul sensibility on debut album Welcome to the Cruel World, Ben Harper proves he is still an artist to be reckoned with thanks to a brilliant Adelaide performance backed by his regular band the Innocent Criminals.

Welcomed to the stage with furious applause from an audience that have waited a long time to see them live in Adelaide again, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals aren’t here as some 90s nostalgia act. While the tide of soft-voiced surf-folk genre that Harper helped bring to prominence has gone out to sea, his new records and blend of rock, folks, blues and reggae still remains compelling today.

Many of the evening’s punters have played Harper’s CDs until they were scratched beyond use, and followed him into the digital era, filling iPods and Spotify playlists with his long and varied catalogue. These screaming fans are, in a word, dedicated. Harper is certainly appreciative of their enthusiasm, thanking the audience throughout, noting what a privilege it is to do this for a living.

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Slower jams from his more recent records kick off the evening, including Forgiven, Call It What It Is (Murder) and Don’t Take That Attitude To Your Grave. Harper is seated front and centre with his slide guitar and is enigmatically disguised under a broad hat, promising some ‘rockers’ for later.

He changes his slide for acoustic after Leon Mobley’s percussive brilliance pulls the audience into a bongo-induced frenzy, as the Innocent Criminals blend songs old and new into a bubbling set of varying tempo and enthusiasm.

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While a good percentage of Harper’s music is tinged with political statements, he doesn’t editorialise between tracks, allowing them to speak for themselves and only builds a happy repartee with his adoring fans.

Mid-way through the set, after renditions of Shine and Diamonds On The Inside, Harper removes his broad hat, jokes about his thinning hairline and reminds the audience he has always worn hats. This isn’t some new way to hide his age, he says as he pays homage to the crowd’s balding brethren. “Bald is the new hair,” he laughs, and the audience chuckle with him.

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As if to disprove any worry that he might be slowing in age, the second half of the set cracks into life with a series of animated performances, showcasing Harper and the Criminals’ brilliant versatility with songs like Morning Yearning, Fight for Your Mind and Faded.

The ever-excellent bassist Juan Nelson is in fine form, especially in his Fight for Your Mind solo, and a hilarious duel between his bass and Harper’s slide guitar that culminates in Harper abandoning any fine plucking for long jamming chords and Nelson throwing his arms up in faux-frustration.

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Harper and his Criminals don’t shy away from the hits as the set goes on, and the audience is screamingly appreciative of each old favourite. On some tracks, like stoner-anthem Burn One Down, such appreciation isn’t just expressed in screams, but a very distinct scent.

Curiously, the Adelaide crowd’s dancing doesn’t quite match their vocal enthusiasm, with most concert-goers swaying in place, or bopping only slightly on the busiest numbers, but this could have something do to with that scent.

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Drawing to a close, Harper and the Innocent Criminals return to wow the audience with a triple encore of Steal My Kisses, Where Could I Go (with its own impressive sans-microphone acapella effort from Harper) and With My Own Two Hands.

After 15 songs, Harper promises the audience he will always remember this show, and the audience certainly won’t forget it either.

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals played at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre on Monday, November 28.

Photos: Andreas Heuer – AKPhotography 

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