Nobody meshes folk and funk like slide-guitar swami Ben Harper. The Californian and his backing band, the Innocent Criminals, brought their groovy fusion to the House of Blues, June 12.
The evening kicked off with the Nightwatchman -- a.k.a. Tom Morello -- axe murderer for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Morello is famous for swinging his guitar for adoring alt-rock and rap-metal freaks. But tonight, Morello sported just an acoustic while belting out leftist political ballads not unlike Dylan during the early ’60. The 45-minute set consisted of material from 2007’s One Man Revolution, as well as a litany of between-song rants against President Bush and the G8 summit. He even led the crowd in a sing-along to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Next up was Harper, who had just performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Q before Game 3 of the NBA Finals (too bad the Cavs tanked). Harper and the Innocent Criminals busted into material off his 2006 album, Both Sides of the Gun -- five straight up rock tunes before the lights dimmed, and Harper moved into his syrupy folk material, showcasing new singles “Morning Yearning” and “Waiting for You.”
Of course, all this felt like a warm up for the first crowd favorite, “Diamonds on the Inside,” his rooty hit from 2003. The crowd, with raised beers and hoots, responded instantly to those first few guitar chords. Halfway through the jam, which lasted at least 15 minutes, the band evacuated the stage, and Harper crooned a lonely folk passage not on the CD version.
Suddenly, Leon Mobley jumped front and center with his bongos, introducing the next crowd pleaser, “Burn One Down.” A green light washed the stage, and a sweet fog of marijuana began to float over the crowd. A fan even handed Mobley a giant spliff, which he pressed between his lips, exhaling billows of smoke during an amazing-fucking drum solo. “If you don’t like my fire, then don’t come around,” Harper and the crowd sang together. “’Cause I’m gunna burn one down.”
The set finished with the crowd holding hands to the new single “Better Way.” Harper screamed and set his guitar on fire.
The band returned for two encores. The first was just Harper and his guitar for about five songs. The second encore was absolutely worth the wait: a 15-minute, send-them-rioting-into-the-streets version of Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.”
Fans filed out about 12:30 a.m., not the least bit concerned that they dropped $35 for a standing-room-only ticket and $4 for every lukewarm beer. That’s the charm of Ben Harper and friends. -- Keith Gribbins