Ben Harper and the Relentless 7: Live Last Night

the kills

Live Last Night

Ben Harper fooled everybody. Before he'd hit a note for his show last night at the 9:30 club, Harper sat down on a chair and rested a lap steel guitar on his legs. He's not a large man, so for a big portion of the sold out crowd he disappeared, and the instrumentation and seating set the table for a quiet, reserved night.

But then Harper's drummer screamed out a four-count and the band tore into Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times" with as much power as a four-piece combo can muster. The impact was glorious.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

That was but one of several fabulous rock-and-roll moments during Harper's two-and-a-half-hour show.

Harper, 39, came onto the music scene as a folk-soul artist. His first notable disc, 1994's "Welcome to the Cruel World," put him somewhere between Marvin Gaye and James Taylor. Harper has since taken various bands into the topical/political and jam band realms.

But with his latest project, a group he's dubbed the Relentless 7, Harper really wants to rock. His 9:30 set focused on material from "White Lies for Dark Times," a record that gets its official release today. Audience members, despite the unfamiliarity of most songs, behaved reverently.

The reverence was deserved. The melody of "Shimmer and Shine" was strong enough to fight off all the fuzzy chords. "Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)" had hints of Cream and Lenny Kravitz. "Why Must You Always Dress In Black" sounded like ZZ Top fronted by Robert Randolph.

The performances were so strong, even the downers were uplifting. "The Word Suicide" found Harper singing about a man at the end of his rope ("This is no way to live, and this is no way to die") over a brutal bluesy waltz. On the rare occasions when Harper looked back in his songbook, he gave fans a different reading than they were used to: For "Better Way," from 2006's "Both Sides of a Gun," Harper replaced the psychedelic flourishes on the recorded version with distorted guitar chords.

To nitpick: Occasionally, as on "Fly One Time," Harper et al gave a nod to the jamophiles in his audience and noodled longer than they should have.

But the rocking was never too far away. To kick his band out of a jam on "Boots Like These," Harper ran at full speed from the side of the stage and took a flying leap off the drum riser. Just another thrill in a night full of 'em.

-- DAVE MCKENNA

By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 5, 2009; 1:12 PM ET Live Last Night
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