Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center is one of the few places in America that’s more swingin’ on a Monday morning than in the heart of a Saturday night—except, perhaps, inside the tiny room that hosts that famed “live…from New York
” show. That rule was broken into tiny shards this weekend, however, when Ben Harper
and the Innocent Criminals rolled into Radio City Music Hall and temporarily overlaid the staid office park environs with a coating of pure roadhouse—blood, sweat, and beers all included.
Like any good sonic chef, Harper knows that you can’t simply crank up the heat and expect to come up with a savory stew—which explains his decision to kick off this sold-out gig with a simmering, sinewy solo version of “11th Commandment” (one of the evening’s several instrumental interludes). By the time he segued that piece into his low-slung cover of the Dylan obscurity “Well, Well, Well”—which Dylan himself never released on a proper disc—the crowd was raring to sizzle, and the remainder of the Innocent Criminals saw to it that they got their chance.
With Harper and his partner-in-guitardom Michael Ward sparring atop the dense, interlocking thicket of beats laid down by the three-man rhythm section—percussionist Leon Mobley acted as the mortar binding the contributions of bassist Juan Nelson and drummer Oliver Charles—the two-hour set boasted plenty of whiplash-inducing moments. But as if to prove that he’s still very in touch with his less-is-more roots, Harper hit just as hard fronting a stripped-down three-piece edition of the band through a mid-set interlude highlighted by a stirring “Whipping Boy.”
The crowd was split between folks who were clearly out for a night on the town and those intent on scoping out just what intricate jamming tricks Harper and his band might trot out, a gap that’s sometimes hard to bridge. And while there were a few verbal skirmishes between the dance-in-the-aisles set and the shush-happy segment of the audience, Harper’s easygoing charisma made for a sturdy bridge—one that had the sides united to groove along to an infectious take on Bill Withers’ classic “Use Me” and to sit in rapt attention as he closed by singing a good chunk of “Where Could I Go” a capella without a microphone.
To Harper’s credit, the hush that fell over the room during that performance didn’t temper the shouts for an encore that erupted once the last notes dissipated. Harper answered in much the same way he answered the bell at the beginning of the night—with a winding, hypnotic instrumental run (this time through “Paris Sunrise #7”) and a headlong dive into the bracing waters of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Walking out into the unusually crisp New York night, it was easy to believe that passion can be passed on from person to person—and doing so is Ben Harper’s greatest talent.