CHICAGO — Ben Harper and Jack Johnson share a kinship onstage and off, but it's the musical pairing that fans came for Friday night at the UIC Pavilion.
Kicking off their summer tour despite dreary un-summerlike conditions outside, Harper and Johnson treated the sold-out crowd to three hours of their jam-oriented sounds. Though often said to be stylistically similar, the two artists could not have be more different performers.
Johnson, who played first, has perfected the low-key, island singer routine, almost to a fault, while Harper and his muscular five-piece backing band, the Innocent Criminals, were not afraid to turn up the volume, mining rock and roll riffs in their charged closing set.
Hailing from Hawaii, Johnson had planned to be a surfer before a mutual friend slipped Harper a demo tape. Impressed with what he heard, Harper adopted Johnson as his protégé, touring with him as an opening act before Johnson achieved mainstream success.
Johnson's Hawaiian influences colored his 90-minute set, which was rich with breezy acoustic atmospherics. Playing before an impressionistic black and white scrim adorned with palm trees lining a windswept beach, Johnson's relaxed approach and minimal acoustic strumming set a romantic atmosphere, perfect for an outdoor summer show.
The only problem: the concert, staged in a large arena, dwarfed Johnson and his accompanying bassist and drummer. Sure, the crowd swayed along to his soulful sound, but an arena show requires a magnetic performer. Johnson, whose music is more about mood than message, will probably fare better when the tour moves outdoors.
Beginning his set solo, Johnson nestled up to his acoustic guitar on "Times Like These." The performance started on a deflated note, thanks to the song's hushed tones and Johnson's stationary position before the microphone — his energy level and his voice barely above a whisper.
Johnson's set — which included a cover of beach buddy Jimmy Buffett's "A Pirate Looks at Forty" — perked up with his band's entrance. Highlights included the layered, reggae-inflected "Fortunate Fool," dreamy and floating on its ragged guitar riffs. He delivered "Flake" with a restrained force, heaving its plea of "Please, please, please don't pass me by" over its spiraling melody. A cover of Taj Mahal's "Farther on Down the Road" benefited from opening act Kid Koala's textured collage of frittered rhythms, which helped expand Johnson's sound.
After Johnson's opening set, Harper injected the evening with equal parts soul and revolution. Set opener "Excuse Me Mr." swelled over a percussive backdrop, laced with Harper's blistering electric guitar. His versatile guitar playing, including his expert technique on the slide guitar, provided bouts of energy. Though Harper positioned himself front and center, he remained egalitarian.
Bassist Juan Nelson enjoyed a riveting solo on the gospel-tinged "Brown Eyed Blues," and percussionist Leon Mobley shone on a loosely paced, highly rhythmic foray through Harper's hit "Steal My Kisses."
Harper, an adept lyricist whose songs highlight social issues, like racism or the problems of war, added fragments of Bob Marley's "War" to "With My Own Two Hands." His kinetic music and rich voice rang with fervor as he sang the line "I can reach out to you with my own two hands."
Like Johnson, Harper played a solo set. Seated on a chair draped in a patchwork canvas, Harper constructed emotional melodies layered with his falsetto, resonant guitar playing and weighty lyrics. Though Harper's melodies offered more substance than Johnson's insouciant approach, the two artists complemented each other and — judging by the audience's response — both found their own way to please the crowd.
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