Transcendent Show From Harper Thrills Crowd

Soulful rocker mesmerizes with powerful voice, virtuoso guitar-playing.

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

steady rhythm.

"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

prevailing response.

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

"Voodoo Child."

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."