For years and years, I’ve attempted to see Ben Harper live. But every time he came to Vancouver, his concerts were always sold out. I’ve been listening to Harper since the time of CDs (ageing myself a bit here), dreaming of how he might sound in real life. I was so honored to finally have a chance to see him Sunday night at the Commodore Ballroom. It was even better than I imagined.
The LA-based Hey, King! opened for Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals. The story of how Hey, King! came to be is truly an incredible one. During her twenties, Natalie London (lead singer) fought a horrendous illness, which left her bedridden for three years. She lost her ability to walk, talk, read, and write. However, with determination, strength, and the courage to keep fighting, she was finally able to gain these basic skills back, and she was able to sing again. Through this second chance at life, London created Hey, King!
Things kept getting better for her after that. Not too long after London created the band, she met the love of her life, Taylor Plecity. Together, they create vocals for the songs, which are so beautiful and full of genuine love. And if finding your soul mate wasn’t enough, the two of them then played for Ben Harper, who ended up producing the band’s E.P.
I’m so happy I had the opportunity to witness such an inspiring group. Although their music is not what I would’ve expected – opening for Ben Harper, I imagined a more upbeat, reggae sound – they are amazing nonetheless. The band’s sound is reminiscent of Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but with strong, clear vocals. Both London and Plecity have very ethereal voices, especially when harmonizing. I could listen to them for hours on end.
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals
The crowd was jittery as they anxiously awaited Ben Harper’s arrival. And then there he was: Harper walked on stage, looking cool and relaxed in jeans, a white t-shirt, and a hat. He waved to the crowd as they roared with appreciation. Then he sat down and began to play the guitar in his typical fashion: placed on his lap with strings up. Harper enjoys the lap slide guitar because of the range he can get out of it. He has previously said that a regular guitar feels limiting, he’s unable to get to what he’s feeling. But with a lap slide, the range is so different that he’s able to get closer to the sound he’s trying to create. Seeing him switch from lap to regular is so much fun as he’s incredibly talented any way he plays it!
The first thing that struck me about Harper (aside from the interesting way he holds his guitar, of course) is how completely absorbed he gets into his music, and he pulls the audience in too. Throughout the night, I often felt as though I was in a trance. Watching Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals was simply mesmerizing.
Another thing that struck me was Harper’s voice – it’s even more angelic than when listening to his albums. There’s such range and depth; he has the ability to switch from soft and sweet to hard and rough in an instant. This is shown through the great variety of songs Harper has written over the years.
Harper played the first two songs “Strut” and “Walk Away” by himself, and then the Innocent Criminals joined him. Together, they played “Gold to Me” and “God Fearing Man.” The band performed “God Fearing Man” in a much grittier, heavier way than how it sounds on the album. Therefore creating a very dramatic, rock ballad-type sound, which was remarkable to hear live.
Then they moved on to “Finding Our Way,” creating a chill, reggae vibe, and afterwards sang a fun, fast-paced “Burn to Shine.” “Diamonds On The Inside” was up next. The audience went wild when they heard the intro, but then something went amiss and Harper had to stop the band and have them start up again. After that little hiccup; however, the crowd cheered even louder and sang devotedly along with the band.
In fact, Harper’s fans love him and the Innocent Criminals so fiercely, there was an actual standing ovation in the middle of the concert. It happened right before Harper started a song, there was a stillness in the crowd when suddenly cheers erupted. Harper was truly humbled; you could feel his genuine appreciation when he bowed his head in gratitude.
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals continued through a good mix of old and new tracks, including the very powerful “Call It What It Is (Murder),” which reflects on police brutality.
The band then played one of my favourites, “Better Way.” The track’s trippy feel was the reason I initially gravitated to the song, but I discovered that hearing it live makes all the difference in the world. As Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals finished with “Amen Omen,” Harper thanked the audience for coming, and they walked off stage. I’ve never heard such demand for a group to return for their encore – the ground was literally shaking from the audience stomping.
As Harper returned to the stage, the crowd gave a deafening cheer of adoration. Then, almost instantly, the crowd fell silent in order to hear his acoustic solo of “Waiting On An Angel.” Harper then blessed us with a second acoustic solo, singing “I Shall Not Walk Alone.” This was magical; even thinking about it now, I have goose bumps.
The Innocent Criminals then returned to the stage and joined Harper for “The Will To Live” and “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart).” Both songs had absolutely phenomenal interludes, showcasing the unbelievable talent of all members of the band. As they neared the end of “Keep It Together,” we saw Jason Mozersky (lead guitar) kill it with a smooth and slow solo, then Juan Nelson expertly brought in layers of bass, and finally it was Harper’s turn. As he played, the beat got faster and faster and the song built up to an epic climax. The performance was intoxicating, even the crew backstage was cheering and trying to get a glimpse. The interlude lasted 10 minutes and at the end, Harper was playing with such intensity that he actually fell off his chair!
The concert ended very fittingly with “Goodbye To You.” Truth be told, I don’t think anybody was ready to say goodbye to Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals.
The night was, in a word, beautiful. From start to finish, I was in awe of the talented individuals on stage. It was wonderful to see Hey, King! in the beginnings of their career and so exciting to finally see Ben Harper live after all these years. Thanks for swinging through and giving Vancouver another chance to see you, Ben Harper. Hope to see you again soon.