published: 10 /
Anthony Dhanendran watches a mixed bag of a show from intriguing blues-rock duo Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite.
Ben Harper is a funny kind of musician. He’s sold four million records to a dedicated fan base but outside that fan base he’s largely unknown. This, his only London show, is far from packed by the venue’s standards. The Harper of old appealed mainly to a certain kind of audience - that is to say that most of the people I know who are Ben Harper fans are massive stoners, or at least they were before they hit their thirties and found themselves in senior management jobs in the city, which cuts down on one's toking time.
Over the last few years he's changed his tune and he's been making music with blues man Charlie Musselwhite, one of the original white bluesmen and reportedly the inspiration for Elwood Blues in 'The Blues Brothers'. The two albums Ben and Charlie have made - 2013's 'Get Up', with won the 2014 blues Grammy, and this year's 'No Mercy in This Land' - are attempts by Harper to cross over into the blues domain, and to allow Musselwhite to access a more mainstream audience.
Both men take the stage at Shepherd's Bush Empire with their backing band, and start off sitting down, with Harper initially taking most of the singing duties and Musselwhite accompanying on the harmonica. The fourth song, 'I Ride at Dawn', is the first of the show's highlights, with Ben Harper's light-touch vocals soaring over the swampy blues backing.
Despite that lack of household-name cut-through, Harper is a mighty fine songwriter, possessed of a McCartney-like gift for melody and harmony and, on his first several albums, simply a writer of very, very good songs indeed. But as the double live album 'Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals Live from Mars' conveys, he’s no slouch as a live performer either.
'Get Up', the title track from the pair's first album, rocks along and Charlie’s harmonica playing is sublime. Then 'I Don’t Believe A Word You Say' is powerful straight rock, driving and imposing itself.
Throughout this first section, something is missing, however, which led us to a lot of questions. Is it that the second album is not as good as the first? Maybe it's just that neither 'Get Up' nor 'No Mercy in This Land' is as good as Ben Harper's earlier solo work? Maybe it's that the ideal Ben Harper gig is either two hundred people in a smoky dive bar or 40,000 in a hazy summer festival show? In the smoke free Shepherd's Bush Empire, full of thirty-, forty- and fifty-somethings not getting especially merry, and certainly no tokers, maybe Ben and Charlie are in the wrong place. Is £37.50 a ticket a steep price for this sort of thing (like all gig reviewers, your correspondent was given a ticket, in this case by Ben Harper's management)? Would it have been better in the more laid back (if no longer smoke-filled) environment of Ronnie Scott's, where it might have cost £137.50 a ticket?
We don't have good answers to any of these questions, but it's certainly true that the show felt as though it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. The performers were at the top of their game, everything sounded good, the audience were into it, the venue was good, but something was missing. Regardless, you get the impression that quite a lot of people here tonight have come a long way to worship at this church.
'I'm in I'm Out and I'm Gone' was another powerful track, with one of Harper's trademark epithets at its core: "the preacher said 'careful talking to yourself, you just may be listening'". And 'Found the One' has a throbbing backbeat that makes it sound just like the intro to 'Abracadabra' by the Steve Miller Band, but better. When Charlie takes the lead for the brilliant rocking and rolling 'I’m Goin' Home' - one of his own songs, not from the duo's two albums - it's electric.
In sharp contrast, towards the end the whole house goes silent for a magical rendition of 'When Love is Not Enough', including a slow and beautiful guitar solo by Ben followed by a slow and mournful mouth organ solo by Charlie. And a droney, muddy, suitably sludgey cover of Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie's 'When The Levee Breaks' closes out the main set.
The five-song encore involves a cover of the Beatles' 'Yer Blues' (Harper introduces it, deadpan, with: "We’re going to cover a song by a famous blues band... called the Beatles"), and the only truly transcendent moment of the evening, when Harper comes to the front of the stage without a mic and sings the final song, 'All That Matters Now', into the crowd entirely un-amplified. He sits down, exhausted, but his voice is utterly stunning. He sings the second half of the song on mic, breathy and dynamic, accompanied by just the piano and brushed drums, to a silent house and it’s no less powerful than the first part.
Harper closes things out by telling the audience: "As photosynthesis is to plants, you are to our music. Thank you for the night of our lives, thank you for breathing life into this." I'm sure he says it to all the crowds, but such is the measure of him you get the impression that he is absolutely sincere.