BERKELEY, Calif. -- Ben Harper walked onto the stage of the Berkeley
Community Theater last Saturday in a beautiful disguise -- dressed in an old
pair of jeans and a white, long-sleeved T-shirt.
The look may have been down-to-earth by any standard, but Harper's presence
-- if the mood of the crowd were any indication -- was that of a spiritual guide
about to deliver a sermon.
Red, yellow and green lights illuminated the stage as the sold-out audience of
3,500 waited expectantly. Harper sat down, picked up his acoustic lap-slide
guitar and launched into "Oppression," from the album Fight for Your
Mind. What followed was a performance that transformed the dank theater
into the site of a transcendent experience shared by performer and audience
At first, supported by his backup band, the Innocent Criminals, the soulful, rootsy
rocker sang in a subdued voice that seemed to mesmerize the swaying crowd.
But the mood steadily became more celebratory as the band reeled off versions
of passionate, soul-baring numbers such as "Burn One Down," "You Look Like
Gold" and then
(RealAudio excerpt), from his latest album, The Will to Live. Throughout,
bassist Juan Nelson balanced out Harper's power and intensity with a calm and
"The energy of his music ... made me feel like you could put God inside of me,"
said Tyler Dalgleish, 18, of Sunnyvale, Calif., reflecting what seemed to be the
His Weissenborn cradled on his lap for "Faded," Harper tore at the chords with
an intensity that made the notes literally screech for attention.
At one point, percussionist Dean Butterworth led a rhythmic excursion, with
David Leach on hand drums, that sent volleys of sound ricocheting through the
As the tempo increased, the audience's enthusiasm grew, culminating in shouts
of encouragement as the drummers fed off their energy.
Following the set closer, "I Shall Not Walk Alone," a moment of dead silence
abruptly turned into an explosion of cries for one more song. Harper, of course,
obliged, returning to the stage for a thundering version of Jimi Hendrix's
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals stripped traditional rock of its clichés, leaving the crowd with a pure
sound that touched hearts and dazzled minds.
"He is an incredible musician," said 23-year-old Courtney Landry. "He touched
the love part of me and made me cry."