It's hard to doubt guitarist Ben Harper's sincerity, especially when he's on stage doing his thing.
Not quite as ostentatiously retro as Lenny Kravitz, nor as embarrassingly self-righteous as Bono in his Rattle and Hum days, Harper writes and performs the kind of socially conscious electric-folk-blues few contemporary artists are able to pull off anymore. His sold-out show at San Francisco's Warfield Theater on Thursday night, the first of a two-night stand, however, was mostly a case of preaching to the converted.
Every vocal leap, guitar flourish, smile and foot shuffle elicited a roar of approval from the crowd, many of whom bore a time-warp resemblance to their hippie parents, who likely stood on this same spot 30 years ago, dancing in the same flowery manner, smoking the same fragrant weed.
After a mellow pair of opening tunes on acoustic guitar, Harper, who stays seated for the majority of his concerts, reached back for one of his signature Weissenborn acoustic lap guitars. "Burn One Down" brought the audience to life in all the expected ways, as huge puffs of pot smoke caught the lights during Harper's first electrifying solo of the night, appropriately enough for a song whose first chorus encourages people to "burn one from end to end/ and pass it over to me my friend." His left hand furiously sliding along the neck of the guitar as his right jabbed at the strings, Harper lost himself in the song's instrumental break, filled by an African drum and bass solo.
Just five songs into the set Harper pulled an audacious move by tearing into Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child," his hands angrily popping and pulling the strings on the guitar as those old enough in the audience climbed high into their nostalgia trip. Humble to a fault, Harper then introduced his band, then his lighting crew, his sound crew, his stage help, and even his bus driver to the audience, who got a bigger ovation than show openers Cool Bone, a jazz, hip-hop, go-go, rap octet from New Orleans who played their funky 45-minute gumbo to a mixed response.
Harper's expressive, high, sweet, operatically wavering and sometimes barely audible voice leaped from whisper to growl on "Gold to Me," during which he was joined by members of New York's Eric Person Trio on saxophone and trumpet. The song presented the first "peak" of the night, as Harper pulled a Tom Morello- (Rage Against the Machine) trick out of his bag of guitar sounds and made his custom instrument ring like a turntable as he scratched the strings with his right hand, while manipulating the effect with his sliding left.
The title track from Harper's second album, Fight For Your Mind evolved into an extended bass solo from Juan Nelson, a mountain of a man with manual and musical dexterity that rivals Harper's. Interpolating a number of classic funk tunes, Nelson took the spotlight for a few minutes as he brought the crowd higher (if that was possible) with a rousing run through Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin."
The part about preaching to the converted came near the end of Harper's over two-hour set, when he led the audience in his traditional closed-fist salute, a homage to the black-power salute of yesteryear, raising his arm high in the air as a sign of solidarity. The sight of the lily white audience, many holding lighters, joints, cigarettes and beers up to the lights, all joining in with Harper, was ripe for interpretation. Were they rising up against their paltry allowances? The high price of an ounce? The warm beer?
Regardless of the mixed messages, Harper closed the show with a stunning solo, followed by an extended work-out from his band, during which he rose to his feet and twirled in tight circles, his head tilted back, arms out to the side.
Harper returned for several encores, one of which, "I Shall Not Walk Alone," was yet another musical high-point. Matching his vocals almost note-for-note with guitar tones, so that each vocal cue corresponded to a subtle pick or strum, Harper played a hushed, oddly syncopated duet with himself that had the audience sternly shushing each other so as not to miss a single note.