(Video included) About 10 years ago, I saw Ben Harper play at the Vic Theater in Chicago. It was a powerful experience. He wailed on about 10 different guitars throughout the show, and used his electric voice to rip through a set that ranged from violence to despair. I walked out that evening a huge fan, and with a belief that I just witnessed a legend and a musical genius in the making.
This time around, Ben Harper’s tour came through Chicago with his latest band, Relentless7. And, for the most part, touring with a new sound. Harper came out on stage without a guitar – the first sign that things have changed, and what was to follow. That included something I never imagined I would hear from Ben Harper – “Under Pressure,” the famous tune by Queen and David Bowie.
Relentless7 features Jason Mozersky on lead guitar and he’s talented, to be sure. Harper cedes much of the guitar playing throughout the set to Mozersky. And while he’s quite capable, it’s just not the same.
To me, Ben Harper is one of those artists who should command full charge of the stage and the set. He’s the show. Playing with this new band seems to have put a leash on him. But Harper should be cut loose entirely. This tour sounds like a band feeling their way around a new sound rather than a world-class musician being supported by a talented band. For my money, I came to see Ben Harper and Relentless7, not Relentless7 featuring Ben Harper. There were moments where his unique sound and style took charge – just not enough of them. Ultimately, I didn’t hear the same unbridled passion that I have before.
Still, it was a good show. They are all clearly talented and they sounded good. And the crowd at the Vic gave their approval through cheers and the occasional standing ovation and clap-along. I try my hardest to see Harper whenever he comes around, and this show didn’t convince me otherwise.
The opening band, The Henry Clay People, put on a very solid show. And what really made it fun was the fact that this young band was on their first tour supporting a major talent. They told the story about how they just quit their jobs two weeks ago because they were told they had a chance to tour with Ben Harper. And now they were here. It’s a true rock and roll dream come true, and they acted like it. It was impossible to not notice their excitement – from the lead singer jumping down in the crowd and giving high-fives while singing, to jumping on his brother’s back near the end of their set. They’re pretty damn good too. It’s good rock and fun to watch. You can check them out at both Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits this year.
Below is some video from the show. The first one is “Under Pressure,” and the second is a brief clip of “Shimmer and Shine,” featuring a more typical Ben Harper sound from his laptop slide guitar.