There were no prayer books on the seats or Hail Marys being said, but on Tuesday night, Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama transformed New York’s Apollo Theater into a house of worship.
“Before there was rock, before there was soul, before there was blues,” Harper told MTV News before the show. “It all came up out of the church. It’s gospel — and it’s the root.”
Harper slowly strolled onto the stage — followed by his longtime band, the Innocent Criminals — and took a seat at center stage. As he began to strum an acoustic lap-steel guitar, the Blind Boys, three blind gospel singers in their 70s wearing matching white suits and sunglasses, were led onstage and seated in three chairs to Harper’s left.
Harper started off the set with “Well Well Well,” a track from There Will Be a Light, the gospel album that he and the Blind Boys released last month. As Harper began to sing, the Blind Boys — who sat completely still, microphones held steadily in front of their mouths — added depth with low harmonies.
The group worked its way through Harper’s “I Want to Be Ready” (from 1997’s The Will to Live), and two more songs from There Will Be a Light as the audience, which at first seemed perplexed that Harper was not playing his most popular hits, began clapping along with the rhythm.
As he sang, Harper threw his head back, contorting his body while holding onto the microphone stand for support. During “Church House Steps,” he leapt up from his seat and danced across the stage.
Though they remained seated, the Blind Boys were equally taken by the energy of the music. One member, Jimmy Carter, rose from his seat with sudden energy to belt out a lengthy solo that ended when he simply sat back down.
“When [the Blind Boys] open their mouths to sing,” Harper said before the show, “it triggers something in you, consciously, unconsciously, subliminally. And it fills you in a soul way. It’s like soul food: It’s deep with me when they open their mouths to sing. You’re hearing the ancestral-heritage beginning of soul music. It’s something really powerful to be close to.”
After harmonizing through songs including “Won’t You Give a Man a Home” and “Wicked Man,” the first set ended. When Harper returned, he took a moment to thank the audience for welcoming his foray into gospel music.
“Gospel music means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” he said. “Thank you for allowing it to mean the same thing to everyone here tonight.”
Harper’s second set was more animated than the first. Carter wandered (with an escort) into the crowd, taking the lead on “Satisfied Mind” as the audience rose from its seats.
When the Blind Boys left the stage for the final time, Harper and the Innocent Criminals tore through eight of Harper’s most popular tracks, including “Mister,” “Brown Eyes” and “Steal My Kisses.” On the left balcony, two middle-aged men danced with a vengeance, flailing their arms and singing along.
Harper closed the show with “With My Own Two Hands,” from last year’s Diamonds on the Inside. As if to make the crowd feel more like a congregation, Harper led it in a call-and-response chorus of the line “I believe in a better way.”
After the last notes, Harper began to walk offstage, but then spun around and ran toward the front, slapping the hands of crowd members before leaping onto and over the keyboards to exit the stage.