By Chad Swiatecki, Special to the American-Statesman
There was a moment about 55 minutes into Ben Harper’s “Austin City Limits” taping on Thursday night that viewers of the eventual television broadcast of the concert probably won’t see, and that’s their loss.
It came after Harper started the gospel hymn “Where Could I Go” in a stark falsetto and then ventured to the front of the stage and belted the song’s second stanza off microphone to the audience, his body nearly convulsing from the force of a song that became a sermon.
As his bandmates kicked into the song’s home stretch, Harper — dazed and seemingly off kilter from the power of the moment – staggered back to return to his normal plot on stage and tumbled almost face first into a guitar amplifier and other equipment before recovering and joining in. The standing ovation from the crowd in the just about full ACL Live at song’s end confirmed what’s been conventional wisdom throughout Harper’s career: His open vulnerability and the confessional nature of his lyrics are what have earned him his loyal fan base over the past 20-plus years.
“Where Could I Go” comes from “There Will Be A Light,” Harper’s 2004 collaboration album with the Blind Boys of Alabama. On Thursday night Harper was accompanied by the Innocent Criminals, his longtime backing band that he recently reconnected with after a seven-year hiatus, much the same way Neil Young jumps back in the studio with Crazy Horse every couple of albums.
Thursday’s 80-minute set felt like a solid but brief sparring session after the band performed a two-and-half-hour no-holds-barred burner of a show at the same venue the night prior, but Harper and the five members of the Innocent Criminals were putting in their time for the TV folks, with a few between-song jokes about having to pretty themselves up for the proceedings.
It was heavy with the material from April’s “Call It What It Is,” from the good-ol’-day remembrance of “When Sex Was Dirty” to the socially charged title track that leads off with Harper lamenting “They shot him in the back/Now it’s a crime to be black” before name checking Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other victims of racially charged killings.
Even within a relatively short set Harper was able to shift between styles pretty regularly, from the rocksteady lift of “Finding Our Way,” to the dirge of “Call It What Is” and a slow-burning country exploration the band debuted on Thursday with the likely title “Tonight The Bottle Wins Again.”
A brief break was followed by the band returning for a 10-minute, solo-caked run through “Fight For Your Mind,” one of Harper’s earliest anthems and perhaps the definitive song of his career. It was written and recorded before his formal working with the Innocent Criminals, but the artist and his backing band have melded together so seamlessly over the years that they’re able to reinterpret and expand it as feels right from one performance to the next.
It was another highlight of a strong, confident artist who seems to be grateful to be back in the company of a musical family who can anticipate each others’ next steps, and pick Harper up on the rare occasions – literally and figuratively – when he takes a stumble.
When Sex Was Dirty
Burn To Shine
Steal My Kisses
Finding Our Way
Call It What It Is
Tonight The Bottle Wins Again
How Dark Is Gone
Where Could I Go
Goodbye To You
Fight For Your Mind