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Published: 2005/08/08
by Tom Baker

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA- 8/1

Toward the end of his show at a raucous, broiling Tabernacle, Ben Harper
abandoned his post to scale the speaker stacks at stage left, proceeding to
walk a slow circle of the second floor railing of the packed joint, trading
high fives and hugs with the crowd that had cheered his and the Criminals’
every move from moment they took the stage to the steely moan of "11th
Commandment" and "Well Well Well." As a bit of theater, it was thrilling if
not quite death-defying-somewhat risky, to be sure, but faithfully executed,
and typical of the playbook Harper has used to hone his
populist-but-not-really-popular image. Although virtually ignored by
anything resembling a mainstream outlet, Harper certainly has his passionate
fans – earlier in the evening, the ecstatic jam out of "Amen Omen" boiled
over into a standing ovation that went on for the better part of five
minutes.

BHIC’s show is in itself something of a high-wire act, deliberately
courting gospel, funk, soul, blues, and rock without committing to any.
Supported by keyboardist Jason Yates, percussionist Leon Mobley, guitarist
Michael Ward, drummer Oliver Charles, and bassist Juan Nelson, Harper sports
a charismatic but approachable stage presence – part shaman, part showman,
unafraid to unleash squealing bolts of lap steel or cede the spotlight to
his compatriots. It’d be tempting to call Harper and his band a well-kept
secret, if not for the packed house bearing witness this night. Anytime you
can get two thousand people out to see you on a Monday night without the
benefit of airplay, you must be doing something right

After wrapping up the main set with an extended "Steal My Kisses /
Pressure Drop," Harper excused the Innocent Criminals and returned solo for
hushed readings of "Waiting On An Angel," "Widow of Living Man," and "I
Shall Not Walk Alone," an artful but interlude that allowed a little too
much of room’s pent-up energy to bleed away. Fortunately, the band returned
to kick off another long encore with "Glory and Consequence," restoring the
crowd to full throat and prompting Harper’s acrobatic stunt.

"Success is hip," Harper once said, thumbing his nose at the downcast
I-hate-the-mainstream approach, and while a cool guy like Harper knows that
it’s probably more hip these days to skip the pot anthem, BHIC followed up
the surging glory of "Amen Omen" and the dusty sparkle of "Diamonds on the
Inside" with the amiably defiant "Burn One Down," complete with a percussion
breakdown from Mobley, and it was hard to fault them for it. Hip or not, it
was honest, and like anything else Harper and crew tried this night, the
crowd lapped it up and begged for more.

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