Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals/Damian Marley, Festival Pier at Penns Landing, Philadelphia, PA- 9/11
They say, “Time heals all wounds.” While I still don’t know who exactly, “They” are, but, I do know that five years later that the wounds of 9/11 are now scars and on some of us, they are still not yet totally healed.
However on this night, five years removed from the tragedy and its ugly aftermath, securely tucked in the cradle of freedom and brotherly love: Philadelphia, another layer protective emotional skin was added thanks to the healing power of music delivered by Damian Marley and Ben Harper
Damian Marley was born with shamanistic qualities, the ability to discover and connect sorrow to the soul, then redeeming and renewing it to its righteous and loving spirit. His method of practice is his own artistic expression as well as the learned and inherited nature exercised by his father. Yet, Damian is Marley his own man as well as a family man. Yeah, sometimes it does take a Marley to receive the proper positive perspective, especially on the anniversary of 9/11, when just having a Marley in the house is enough. But when the house full of Marley’s it rocks and sways in the real and righteous way. The suppressed pain lifts, wafting its smoky way on high.
Damian Marley will never be his father, no one will, and it shows. He is a showman with his own street credible and critically acclaimed material. He came out swinging on “Confrontation” then headlong into “Justice.” The last third of the set could stand along as the best mix of modern and classic reggae played by anyone since the death of Peter Tosh. “My Name is Jr Gong” is an affirmation that this Marley can stand alone, and his version of “Crazy Bald Head” was a timely as when it was written. But, “War” a song that on a day like today and all of the connotations it carries, was simply a unifier. Brother Stephen’s rough and ready style with Damian’s breezy yet steady flow is dance floor magic on “All Night” and. Julian also brings the heat in the role of the traditional raga-muffin ganj-sta. “Welcome to Jamrock” closed the set, but has opened the door for Damian Marley to become full fledged superstar. He will be for years to come on his merit, with a little help from on high.
I’ve lost count how many times I have seen Ben Harper, but remember the first, (you never forget the first…of anything) December 9, 1994 at the now defunct but legendary NYC club, Tramps. I’ve seen him go through different phrases and line-ups, and to me, Ben Harper has found his groove. He seems comfortable with himself. He is embracing his role and his voice. He trusts his band and it shows. It shines.
Opening with the rambunctious rocker “Faded,” (complete with a new angry mosh infused jam) the star and striped headband wearing Harper immediately set the tone of an evening full of songs of hope, love, politics and again, positivity. Followed by “Wicked Man” and the always poignant and the still disappointingly relevant “Homeless Child,” it was obvious that by the crowd response the Harper’s musical agenda for the evening was ratified. With a brief interlude to lovers lane on “Gold To Me,” “Steal Your Kisses” lost it’s pop sheen thanks to the “doo- wop” bass voice and soulful string stylings of the Innocent Criminals “Big Bass Man,” Juan Nelson.
Politics returned on “Both Sides Of A Gun” where Harper’s emotion while singing the stanza “politics, it’s a drag /they put one foot in the grave and the other on the flag /systems rotten to the core young and old deserve much more /than struggling every day until you’re done,” should have been felt ninety miles south at that big white house the sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The vindictiveness of “Don’t Talk to Me about Murder While I’m Eating” was self evident and guided as Harper then sailed back into relationship realities on “Waiting for You” and the majestic “Morning Yearning.”
In this new century the month of September will always be known as the thirty days of loss, as the horrific memories of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are re-lived by the survivors and the memories of lives lost are remembered. So, “Black Rain,” Harper’s angry reaction to the government’s ineptitude in their handling of the preventable tragedy in our Gulf Coast, rang loud and clear. The forcefulness of his venom at George Walker Bush cut through the politics and patriotism of the day with the pointed lyrics, “don’t you dare speak to us /like we work for you /selling false hope like some new dope /we’re addicted to.”
Harper’s call to action on “Black Rain” was supported in his next selection a cover of the Peter Tosh and Bob Marley penned “Get Up, Stand Up.” Harper joined by Damian, Stephen and Julian Marley. Complete with Rastafarian flag waving and fists punching through the clear yet pungent air, the packed stage brought a sense of justice and self awareness to the forefront.
“You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people, all the time,” scatted Stephen Marley to the crowd that was then lead into a bone shivering call and response ending of the human rights anthem, which the crowd sang until after the packed stage was left empty.
Harper returned to the stage solo acoustic for an amazingly spot on and moving rendition of “Another Lonely Day.” Confidently and passionately, he continued alone on “Walk Away” and “Lifeline.” The Philly music crowd is usually raucous and can be out of hand if on a weekend, but a school/work night, a Monday, it brought out the hard core fans. The crowd kept virtually silent, and it wasn’t lost on Harper.
“That was the quietest crowd of the whole tour. I thank you,” he said. He then said, “Someone asked me why I don’t ask for silence before I start my acoustic set. I told them that if I did that, it would be censorship,” Harper relayed to the crowd.
“I told the guy, there are handsome people out there and they are going to talk to each other. I can’t tell anyone how to feel,” he said.
The second encore unfolded with a blistering version of “Ground on Down” with guitarist Michael Ward and keyboardist Jason Yates making bringing out the dirty rock in the live staple. The Stones-y new track, “Get It Like You Like It,” sounded at home in the set as did Harper’s true to version of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold.”
A campfire vibe took hold over the waterfront lot that doubles as a concert venue during “Burn One Down.” After the bonding Harper said his only words about the day. “This song is about this day,” before launching into the most intense, focused and uplifting version of “Better Way” I have ever heard.
Harper was on another plane before handing the palpable energy over to percussionist Leon Mobley. Mobley’s strength, speed, dexterity and showmanship were in fine form, as his banging march brought both and crowd together as one. Harper looked divinely enthralled in the moment, letting out emotions pulled from a netherworld, screaming, “Reality is sharp /it cuts at me like a knife /everyone i know /is in the fight of their life.”
“Take your face out of your hands/ and clear your eyes /you have a right to your dreams /and don’t be denied,” he sang and implored. During the bow, he apparently was as moved as the crowd: both tired, joyful, and moved.
It was the music that felt good that spawned smiles and hugs at show’s end. It was what music was intended to be: moving, fun, intense, mind expanding, goose pimple inducing and unforgettable.
There is no way, no how, that there was a better gig anywhere or anyplace else in this or any other nation than the pairing of the Marley clan and Harper and his band of Innocent Criminals in the birthplace of freedom on 9/11/06.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Tim Donnelly’s plane was turned around on the tarmac at L.A.X just as aviation was halted. He was stranded in Los Angeles for five days before allowed to fly home.