I was fortunate to be invited to shoot photos of Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last Wednesday night. After enduring Bonnaroo in all of its frenetic bigness, a show in a venue like the Ryman was a welcome change.
The sincere beauty of Ben Harper's voice, his delicately-inflected lyrics and heartfelt frankness were refreshing in a music industry which seems to make music using the “throw mud at the barn door and see what sticks” method. The new songs, the newly streamlined tour, and the richness of the Ryman auditorium worked together to create one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
I was actually there to photograph and interview Oliver Charles, Ben's drummer. Adam Topol, Jack Johnson's drummer, described Oliver to me as his favorite drummer on the planet. I met Oliver at Bonnaroo and we formed an instant bond. The self-described "gutter punk" from L.A. makes high-level drumming seem easy.
I would almost rather not write anything at all than write something negative, and I had no plans to review the show. I was there to talk with Oliver. As fate would have it, the show had such a vivid impact on me that I felt forced to do a concert review.
To prepare myself for this show, I did some reading and one of the things I looked into is the history of the Ryman auditorium. The Ryman website has a detailed history of the venue going back to 1887. As I read name after name of people who have performed there in the past 120 years, I began to get a sense of the Ryman's mystique. Ben Harper called the Ryman one of his favorite venues to play in, and now I understand why.
The Ryman stage has been host to icons such as Booker T. Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Orson Welles and Bob Hope. Reading through the list is like looking through a prism into the past and seeing a cross-section of American history.
The two-hour drive to Nashville only served to increase my anticipation. I saw Ben at Bonnaroo, photographed him from the stage, but that was different. Bonnaroo is the big show, where everything happens fast. The Ryman was something else indeed.
I enjoyed Ben's show at Bonnaroo, but at the time I was so saturated with music, so worn down by the heat and the dust, that I couldn’t really think, much less pay attention.
Stepping into the cool, dark sanctuary of the Ryman is an experience in itself. Expansive but cozy, church-like with its stained glass, a working museum, a national monument saturated in history, the Ryman seemed the perfect place to hear Ben Harper's new music and absorb his newly-reconstructed vibe.
Wandering around behind the stage before the show gave me the opportunity to listen in on some interesting conversations. The size of the road crew has been reduced and they’re carrying less equipment. The new album “Lifeline” released just last month is a huge departure not only for Ben, but for any modern musician because it was recorded completely in analog on 16 track. From what I heard, he was starting to feel oppressed by the technology rather than expressed through it and was trying to find his way back to the fundamentals.
I’m jaded. Listening to any new artist is sometimes hard, because I almost always expect to be disappointed. It’s mainly because of the well-used but true adage that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Every musician with a guitar and a dream is looking to come up with a magic formula which turns people on, and it happens only rarely.
Every small town has its “scene” and the truth is that the big scene isn’t much different from the small one. There’s a lot of ego and a lot of people trying to find a place in the spotlight. This is even truer when you start talking about velvet ropes and half a million dollar tour buses.
The truth is that ticket sales aren’t really an indication of the quality of music. Plenty of bands pump out the same rehashed, radio-friendly, grunge-flavored vanilla that’s been around for years. It’s only the adventurous artists who seem to excite me, the ones who do the unusual.
With Ben Harper one of those unusual things is the slide guitar. There's no guitar so expressive, no guitar so seemingly simple yet imbued with subtlety, and no other guitar which speaks so directly to me. Hearing Ben play the slide in the antique yet carefully arranged acoustics of the Ryman was revelatory. Combining reggae, folk and rock isn’t new, but Ben has put his stamp on it in a way which is uniquely his own. The Weissenborn guitars he plays so well are a big part of that stamp.
Ry Cooder, Peter Drake, Duane Allman, Bukka White - there have been a lot of good slide players over the years and Ben’s playing reminds me of all and none of them. He has a light touch and uses the Weissenborn to its best effect, more as voice than stringed instrument. Really hearing, not just listening to, but hearing Ben play the slide on the same stage where Chet Atkins first played as an unknown, then as a star, and then where his funeral was held, bore a poetic resonance with me.
The set-list was long at 22 songs, but they played each with alacrity. Ben Harper's 11 albums and 15 years of touring have taught him how to build tension, and he used that skill to its full effect, bringing the energy in the Ryman to a hard boil.
The show started out with everyone sitting down, politely listening, but as the night slipped by, they were drawn to their feet until the entire room was one roaring, standing ovation.
There may be some nights when Ben Harper isn’t on his game, or when the band isn’t tight, but on Wednesday, September the 12th, 2007, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals really kicked at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
One of my favorite songs from the new album “Lifeline” is the song “Fight Outta You.” This song is more introspection than extroversion. The verses “Don't believe the headlines, check it for yourself sometimes, don't let them take the fight outta you, The lies you live become you, the love you lose it numbs you” seem to be speaking of the hypocrisy I mentioned earlier and which Ben seems to be acknowledging both in himself and in the music industry. It bears the fingerprints of someone who has learned hard lessons and doesn’t want to have to learn them again.
Despite having two Grammys under his belt, Ben sounds like he’s saying that nothing he does will ever be enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of that same industry and that he’s tried hard to come to terms with that fact.
In a world where most people are afraid to admit to believing in anything at all, he turned political correctness upside down when he closed the first set with his tune “Where could I go.” This arrangement, created by Ben Harper, Jason Yates and Mark Ford, is more reminiscent of a traditional gospel tune than anything. This was the highlight of the night for me, because he sang his heart out.
The crowd was spellbound when the band stopped playing almost completely and Ben turned this well-known song into an acapella anthem. Singing acapella is one thing, but when Ben stepped away from the microphone, to the very edge of the stage and began to sing up into the empty spaces above the crowd with no amplification at all, the electricity in the room was like ozone in the air during a lightning storm.
Anyone who made noise at this point was unceremoniously shushed by the crowd. When the song finally ended, the roar from the crowd made the silence seem that much more intense.
The whole band was tight. Before then, I had only heard Oliver Charles play drums live on one other occasion. Sitting feet away from his kit, on the stained and scratched oak floor of the Ryman stage, gave me a new appreciation for his skill as a drummer. I then understood why Adam Topol called Oliver the world's greatest living drummer. That’s a huge statement, and I’m sure that some will disagree, but Oliver’s tight, consistent pocket never fluctuated, and his rhythms were never overly expressed. Oliver Charles is indeed a phenomenal drummer.
Those drum strains were expertly complemented and interwoven with the percussion work of Leon Mobley. Bassist Juan Nelson pulled stately rhythms flawlessly. Jason Yates made the Leslie talk and Michael Ward's guitar leads were explicit.
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals did their job admirably in Nashville the other night and I feel grateful to have been there. I’ve seen hundreds of shows, hundreds of bands, but on this one night in Nashville, the Innocent Criminals got it right, creating their own legacy, in a house with so many.