While Americans were celebrating independence throughout the United States earlier this month, Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals were making fireworks of their own across the pond in Paris, France. Performing four shows over five days at the famed Olympia Music Hall, Harper and his band packed the room to capacity night after night and gave each crowd new material, rarities, and a chance to see that the apple doesn’t fall from the tree.
Opening in 1893 and touting an incredible list of performances over the last fifty years and then some, the historic L'Olympia Theatre is considered the oldest operating venue in the capital city, and with the talent that has crossed its stage, anyone who has done their homework knows that this place holds something special. The venue seats 2000 souls but can accommodate 3,000 when the chairs that line the floors are removed. Aesthetically, the venue is an invitation in and of itself. Coming off the street, its long, neon-lit corridor with high ceilings and mirrored walls eventually breaks open into a wide gathering quarter, carpeted and terraced, and stacked with two bars to efficiently handle the needs of patrons throughout the night. From there, visitors finally pass through the doors into the performance area, a space with more carpet and a balcony that floats out parallel to the room. This space is warm and inviting, lofty and airy, and, for additional comfort, the floor is outfitted with vents and a recirculating air system to keep concertgoers cool, calm, and comfortable, especially for performances like Harper’s, where the crowd on the general admission floor were packed in tight and the music easily raised the temperature more than a few degrees.
Arriving at the venue an hour before doors, the sidewalk looked like any American general admission show with a line extending off into the distance, its end nowhere in sight. It was obvious from that introduction to the French audience that the name Ben Harper meant something and wasn’t just another show on a Wednesday night. Another familiar site was catching a glimpse of a gentleman walking the street with a finger in the air, looking for any extra tickets, keeping it positive and hopeful as he engaged the fortuitous waiting to get through the doors. Speaking with some on the line, it also came as no surprise that there were more than a few reporting that they had attended all four nights and would have done more if the opportunity had been granted.
Getting the night warmed up for the main event, a set by fellow Americans, The Jack Moves, treated the audience to a mix of covers and originals focused around R&B, funk, and soul, all of which got the crowd in the mood for a great evening. Performing with charisma and style, this five-piece was polished and gave it their all to the French audience who eagerly showed their appreciation and respect, dancing in silence as the group gave their everything over to the moment.
With a short intermission and a stage change, including the rolling out of three sizable Persian rugs for Harper and the strings to get comfortable on, the time had finally come. As the band hit the stage with wide smiles, the crowd roared with a welcoming excitement, releasing their celebration for nearly a minute after the group took their spots, completed their tech check, and were obviously ready to go. This seemingly unending demonstration of adoration had the performers standing, grinning, and looking out over the crowd, taking it all in on their final night on this revered stage.
With the crowd finally settled, the set began with “Better Way” from the 2006 release Both Sides of the Gun. This piece rings with a pulsating drone, Harper’s echoing slide work bathing the crowd in aural waves, and this dynamic, coupled with the motivational lyrics delivered by Harper with conviction, set the evening afire and tuned everyone in from the start.
Firing up the funk machine and pulling the room in for some feel-good grooving, “Brown Eyed Blues” took second spot. Of course, being the last night in Paris, hopes were high for something special and this one was the first taste. Not played since September 20th, 2015, this one was recognized as the rarity it is, many fans were visibly excited at its onset. With a great bass spotlight on Darwin Johnson, smiling and laying it on thick while Alex Painter colored the frame masterfully like Monet with a guitar, this resurrection left everyone awash with sweet sweat and dancing delight.
The soulshine “Fight Outta You” was the next choice and had Harper belting out this one with closed eyes as the crowd sang along. Like its predecessor, this one hadn’t been dusted off in a while either. With its last known performance heralding from September 11th, 2016, those in the know jumped up and down and cheered on its opening chords, but quickly silenced once the wordsmith began the reading, not wanting to miss a moment of the rarity. Chris Joyner’s Hammond / Leslie skill shone through here, surrounding the whole of the tune in vibrato and when it came time for his chance to burn brightly, he lit it up.
With a solo start, the melancholy of “She’s Only Happy in the Sun” connected with the audience right from the start. The band eventually joined in, but kept the volume subdued, letting Harper’s vocals shine through while the crowd whispered the script along with him. It has often been stated that if you want to know the quality of a group, listen to them play something soft and slow with nowhere to hide their mistakes, and then you will know their caliber and these Criminals once again proved themselves to be great at any volume. At the end, the leading man blew kisses to the crowd and held his heart, gratitude pouring from his long gaze and beaming twinkle, as he connected with everyone from the inside out.
Although performed earlier in the run, “Say You Will” was yet another one recently revived. Finding its way back to the rotation and played three out of the four nights, before Paris this one had been absent from the setlists since November of 2007. Taking a seat and slipping on the slide, this blues-powered dynamo dripped with great harmonies and a punchy gospel vibe. Joyner’s classic piano sound fit perfectly and Harper tore the air with his lap shred, his left hand seizing with electricity while his right drove the line. This one took the audience from intent listeners to ecstatic dancers, getting even those on the balcony with seats up out of their chairs to shake it all down.
Going from electric to acoustic and seeing the departure of the band from the stage, Harper remained seated and performed the simple sweet serenade “Waiting on an Angel”. Performing most of the tune with his eyes closed, many of those watching him pull the piece from his deep well of emotion were visibly moved as some teared, others drew closer to their partners, and many did both. Again, enraptured in silence from start to finish, with the final notes, the crowd let loose in appreciation of the cathartic composition.
Giving the opportunity for Harper to connect on yet another level with the room, he invited his daughter Harris to share her own work with “Longest Apocalypse”. A reflective, emotive piece, Harris’ ghostly vocals spurred visceral waves, and with her patriarch on slide and sibling CJ on the keys, the family trio drew a hush so quiet nothing but hearts opening could be heard across the mass.
Keeping the familial fountain flowing, the elder Harper brought out another of his progeny, Ellery, to lead on his own original “Grow Old With Me”. Accompanied by siblings CJ and Harris on instrumentation and vocal support and Father Ben once again on lap steel, the quintet was rounded out with stringed orchestration from the first night’s opening act Luna Li on violin. Hanging on every word until the end and unable to hold back any longer, the crowd finally broke loose in celebration of youth and the promise of the next Harper generation. Looking at the face of Ben himself, a satisfied look of pride, love, and humbling wonder made the moment even more human, taking the connection past star and fan, leveling everyone to the existential, dissolving the ‘me’, impelling the ‘we’.
Bowing to the gratitude, the children shining from deep within left the stage, leaving their father solo once again. One of Harper’s tried and true staples “Walk Away” was his next offering. First performed live in 1993, this one has been continually populating setlists ever since without any breaks. This one channels the bittersweet dynamics of desire and loss in the framework of relationships and is the perfect marriage of melody and message in its form. As expected, the audience sang right along, sharing in the reflective moment.
At the beginning of June, Ben Harper released his seventeenth studio album Wide Open Light and described this stripped-down endeavor as “raw and exposed”, recording eleven great tracks of well-crafted soul folk music alone, and although most artists hitting the road would be promoting the new material endlessly, Harper once again presented on the Paris run that his formula is all his own. Up until this point, a week into the tour, only a handful of new pieces had been presented live and on this night in particular, the European crowd would only get one new release. “Giving Ghosts” was the track of choice and once again, the stage filled with warmth and skill. Seated at the slide, Harper performs this one matching his read, word for word, to the actions of his hands, a sublime union of simplicity and perfection.
Bringing the band back to the stage, the blues grip of “The Will To Live” grabbed everyone for a gritty ride. Painter and Harper played off each other nicely, pushing each other upward as Johnson rumbled out the deep and Oliver Charles kept it together in time. The hard edge of this one had many banging their heads and throwing their hands in the air.
Placed in perfect balance to the discord of “The Will To Live”, the playful and bubbly “Steal My Kisses” had everyone singing along, embracing each other, and bouncing along with the positive vibe.
Keeping the rhythm moving and sharing another relative newcomer to the Harper canon, “Need to Know Basis” from last year’s release Bloodline Maintenance just upped the energy in the room. The band backed the preacher with a charismatic choir-like vocal complement that made this one feel more Sunday gospel than mid-week Wednesday.
“Diamonds on the Inside” kept everyone on the affirming journey and the passengers were more than happy to take the ride, singing the entire way. The end section contained great call and response between Johnson’s low end and Harper’s lap steel, inciting viewers to cheer on the two in friendly energetic competition, bringing both smiles and laughs to the rivals’ faces.
Pulling another track from Diamonds on the Inside, “Amen Omen” was the choice to close out the set. With a quiet initiation that built into an electric inferno, this one had it all. Painter fanned the frets as Harper twisted and grimaced, belted out the words, sweat pouring from his face as he pulled the words from the deepest parts of his soul. At the peak, Johnson and Harper stood facing Charles atop his drum riser, the trio pushing each other further and further. Painter went all akimbo, and Joyner standing at the organ and leaning deep into the 88, the unit operating as one, recharged every consciousness in the Olympia. Feeling it deep in the bones, the roar of appreciation unleashed on the band at the end noticeably moved the band as they once again glowed and took it all in.
Returning under the gratitude of the grateful, the band began filling the encore space by NAILING the acapella beauty “Below Sea Level”. Spread across the front of the stage, each at their own mic, the cumulative range brought it all together and exemplified once again the unending talent of this five-headed mythical musical beast.
“Show Me A Little Shame” was up next and with Joyner walking everyone through the doors of the chapel once again with that apostolic organ grind, Harper preached from the pulpit on this bluesy sermon.
Following up with another spiritual, “When She Believes” had Joyner take up the accordion, while the rest of the band backed in quiet repose, Harper hitting the falsetto, pulling every word from the gut. As a song inspired by Harper’s daughter and how she would look into his face as a newborn, moving the proud papa to creation’s gift once again, this one carried that extra special essence, especially in light of the muse being in-house for the tune’s first rendition in almost a year, showing how relevant, intentional, and special this one was on a personal level for the author.
Wanting to go out on a high note, the band left melancholy in the rearview and moved into the reggae power of “With My Own Two Hands”. An anthem of empowerment, responsibility, and accountability, the room sang along, enlisting everyone in the one-person army in each of us called to fight the pacifist fight for love, equality, and redemption. Setting his guitar aside and pointing to faces in the audience, Harper focused on singing the resounding chorus, eventually dropping to his knees, begging everyone to “change the world”. Sealing the evening with a huge finish that saw Harper jump up onto the drum platform and dance wildly before performing a move tantamount to one of his skateboarding skills, returning him to the solid stage as the crowd went wild, the closer clocked in at nearly ten minutes in length and left everyone satisfied in every way.
Walking out into the humid night air, the streets still bustling with life and energy, anyone who had been lucky enough to gain entry to The Olympia came out a little taller and with a little more confidence about their ability to affect the world surrounding them, reminded to this fact in one of the best ways possible: through the power of live music.
Ben Harper has been making music most of his life and performing for audiences for over three decades and his descriptions of love, loss, and social justice themes connect people from all walks of life. His messages are easily interpreted and presented in a no-nonsense form that leaves the statements lingering alongside melodies that continue to ring out within the soul hours and days after listening.
Seventeen albums later and the man is still making magic that is interesting and continually telling the tale of life, intertwining the plight of humanity alongside his own. His live performances have gathered no rust either, as he continually comes across as enjoying his moments, the shared experience, and the connection with the band, as much or more so than he ever has. Like a fine French wine, he appears to continue to get better with age.
Regarding the audience, it has to be noted that the Parisian fanbase is some of the most respectful and focused listeners ever witnessed. Throughout the night, no one spoke out of turn and if they did, the group surrounding them were quick to shut it down. Cell phone recording was at a minimum as often others chided those trying to capture the tune through technology rather than take in the moment in spirit. No one left the concert space for the bathroom or concession during the performance, but rather patrons waited until a break between songs to find their way out of the room.
At the end of this final night in the French capital city, the audience got treated to nineteen individual tunes. With passes from the old school as well as the new frontier, including a glimpse into Harper family life, at the close of the single set, there was no doubt that Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals still have what it takes to keep listeners engaged through expert playing and a sound that breathes with truth and that keen ability to say all those things that some just can’t find the words to tell it any better. Whether armed with an acoustic guitar and going at it solo or backed by his full band, one thing is true: Ben Harper is neither innocent nor criminal, but what he is is an unstoppable force, an unsilenceable voice that has so much more to give.