Updated: Sep 25, 2019
Written by Tim Lemon
Image from Do312.com
While patiently waiting for Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals to take the stage at Portland, Maine’s Thompson’s Point following Trombone Shorty’s highly energetic set, I found myself trying to soak in what remained of summer. Hearing that the season in Maine comes late and leaves early, I had a feeling that Labor Day weekend may just be its final breath of 2019. In absorbing the surroundings while also trying to process the hard progressive jazz rock that had just burst forth from the stage, I tuned in and out of conversations amongst fellow crowd members around me. A few people moved from the appreciation of one musical act right into eager anticipation of the next as I heard the universal concert ice breaker question: “Have you seen [insert musician(s)’ name here] before?” In an attempt to not seem like the eavesdropping busy body that I was being, I snuck in a quick glance over at the people conversing and saw what could best be described as a tie-dye-donning emulation of Garth from Wayne’s World. The woman standing in front of him responded to the aforementioned ice breaker question with, “No, this is my first time. What should I expect?” After a brief moment’s hesitation, as though ruminating on how to best describe Ben Harper’s music with the most efficient wording possible, he replied but with another question: “Do you believe in hope?”
Image from eponymousreview.com
In reflection, that overarching theme of hope coursed through every note and propelled each word throughout the entire night of music. But the interesting thing about this particular form of hope is that it did not arise in the face of some explicitly-stated adversity. No, it expressed hope in humanity at large, belief in the forces that bind us together, and faith in common decency and mutual respect. That sentiment started with Jessy Wilson’s opening set in which her provocative, yet smooth and soulful vocals that almost bordered on rap at times intertwined perfectly with the thick R&B groove created by spacey guitar fills and DJ-crafted beats. Even without a full percussive arrangement, the beats were tastefully done and the guitar effects filled whatever gaps may have persisted in the sonic space. Setting a dancey vibe with her set-ending song “Clap Your Hands”, Wilson was the perfect lead-in for Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.
Image from twitter.com (Alan Todd)
Taking the stage to a rock-heavy R&B arrangement played by the powerhouse that is Orleans Avenue (two drummers, a bassist, two guitarists, an alto saxophone player, a baritone saxophone player, and two female backing vocalists), Trombone Shorty knew how to make an entrance - with an astounding trombone solo that demonstrated masterful breath control and circular breathing techniques. Prior to this set, I never really had a dedicated thought to the possibility of whether or not a horn player could front a large musical ensemble and have the final product be enjoyed outside the confines of an orchestral concert hall. But the supreme musicianship and infectious rhythms and melodies that I witnessed on the stage provided me with the answer to that question before I even knew to raise it - that’s the level of mastery that was put on display. Mitigating dead air time, the band’s breakneck pace matched their frontman’s seemingly set-long state of oxygen debt to provide an experience that was all killer and no filler, resting just long enough for Trombone Shorty to put his namesake instrument aside in favor of a trumpet or to say one of two phrases he repeated throughout the night: 1) “We partying?” 2) “We’re gonna take you to [insert street/neighborhood name here] in New Orleans.” As those statements entail, they brought the party with them and the Portland crowd responded perfectly in kind. By the time the set ended and the party continued albeit with a different host, each member of Orleans Avenue was given the spotlight for a solo. The most mesmerizing came from baritone sax player Dan Oestreicher who wielded the crowd’s attention like a groovy jazzman snake charmer. With air-filled cheeks and note combinations that required supreme lung capacity, I thought that Oestreicher, along with alto saxophonist BK King and Trombone Shorty himself, might pass out mid-solo at any given moment on stage. Thankfully, that did not happen, but the mere possibility in the mind of an ill-informed concert goer is a testament to the band’s dedication to the party they put on.
Image from slugmag.com
With the conclusion of Trombone Shorty’s rocking dance grooves, I found myself questioning how in the world the massive ensemble was just an opening act and how anyone, even Ben Harper, could be tasked with following their performance. It wasn’t until that exact moment that I realized the show was part of a co-headlining tour, but the second question persisted - at least until Harper and the original Innocent Criminals (Leon Mobley on hand percussion, Juan Nelson on bass, and Oliver Charles on drums) took the stage to a tone-setting recorded track of African rhythms and droning spiritual chants. It wasn’t a matter of one act following or preceding the other; they were two separate shows occurring as microcosms within one unified experience. Harper’s set saw constant pulls from deep within the Innocent Criminals’ and his own solo discography, among them being fan favorites like “Steal My Kisses”, “Burn One Down”, and “Diamonds on the Inside.” Prior to the show, I described some of Harper’s more radio-friendly hits as a hook to introduce unsuspecting listeners to the sheer breadth of the man’s musical influences and how they manifested in his guitar prowess, but I couldn’t even begin to expect the tones and blues rock solo runs that Harper could wail forth on a Weissenborn slide guitar or lap steel. The most awe-inspiring of these moments came on a cover of “Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix that morphed into a gritty rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”. Before the appreciation of Harper’s true musical talents set in, any first-time audience members that only knew him for songs like “Steal My Kisses” must have been at least a little frightened by his darker, urgent, crunchy, rock-heavy sounds. For me, they served as a fitting contrast to his more well-known smooth acoustic sweetness. It’s always good to mix a little dirt in with the sugar.
Image from pbs.org
One of those more tender moments came when Harper had the stage to himself with just an acoustic guitar for a beautifully heartbreaking rendition of “Walk Away”. An awed hush fell over the crowd, well except for the hopeful hippy Garth character who was singing wildly out of key, but even he grew quiet in respectful appreciation of Harper’s heartache. Taken aback by the crowd’s instant change in demeanor, Harper expressed his gratitude for the silence saying that it’s not everyday that a beautiful group of people shuts their mouths to listen to some sorry MF-er sing a ballad on stage. Bringing the funky jam vibes back around with the Innocent Criminals re-taking the stage, a lap steel versus bass battle ensued with Juan Nelson challenging Harper. Nelson ultimately conceded after putting up one hell of a groovy fight, saying there were just some things that could be done with a slide that couldn’t be replicated. Even after 25 years of touring together, seeing their pure musical brotherhood displayed with such enthusiasm was heart-warming. Aside from his instrumental abilities, Harper also showcased his vocal command throughout the set and it was never more apparent than during the second verse of “Diamonds on the Inside”. Stepping out from behind his microphone and to the front of the stage, he hushed the crowd to emphatically deliver the second verse near a capella: “A candle throws its light into the darkness | In a nasty world, so shines the good deed | Make sure the fortune, that you seek | Is the fortune you need.” Pausing for a plane that was taking off from Portland International Airport, the crowd collectively lost its mind and rained down applause and yells of admiration before Harper continued with the third verse and then returned to his post at his microphone to play the last chorus. For as much as I have seemingly felt the need to justify some of Harper’s mainstream hits, that moment showed me that they serve a purpose in their own right aside from being a bridge to his deeper tracks. They display a softer, more introspective and human antithesis to the raw anger and urgency present elsewhere in his discography. They shine a light on the vocal and lyrical talents separate from the instrumental abilities. However, “Better Way” combined those strengths with signature beats of world music influences toward the end of the set. Scratchily screaming at times as if exemplifying some deep-seated frustration with the world around him, Harper set up the song’s refrain with the lyrics: “What good is a man who won't take a stand | What good is a cynic with no better plan.” Singing along, I found that I had an answer to the rhetorical question that the Garth look-alike posed unto me prior to the set: I believe in hope, hope in a better way.
Image from ottawacitizen.com