Reviews of music shows I've been to. Maybe you've been there too…

Ben Harper @ 9:30 Club (10/4/11)

Musicians make their bones playing live. Even “studio” bands like Nine Inch Nails have to be great performers (initially) to get signed, and (subsequently) to maintain their fan base. Only the Beatles could get away with retiring from touring while remaining successful and popular (not to mention musically excellent) So when I go to see a performer who I don’t know very well, I expect to at least be entertained on a basal musical level. Thus my disappointment with Ben Harper.

I have always liked what I’ve heard of Ben Harper’s music, making me willing (and a bit curious) to see him live. The guy has a massive cult following, so he must be doing something right. Unfortunately, none of that seemed to come through in his performance at the 9:30 Club. The crowd was appreciative rather than energized, and never ecstatic. Accordingly, the vibe came across as too mellow for a true arena rock show (especially given the raucous opening set by Grace Woodroofe), but too intense for a jam band (similar to my experience seeing Counting Crows back in college). None of the songs had great hooks or memorable refrains. They even pulled out an extended drum/bass solo, something that can be tedious even when the greats like Neil Peart try it. Speaking of great drummers, Harper introduced one song by recounting its recording with Ringo Starr. Unfortunately, Ringo wasn’t there to perform on this night, so the song was immediately forgettable.

The fact that I couldn’t see the stage (due both to my exhaustion after 3 straight days of committee meetings, and Erica’s desire to stand in a weird location) probably didn’t help matters. There was some singing along from the crowd, but mostly just drunken accolades and polite applause. The final straw came during the encore, when Harper returned unaccompanied and proceeded to undertake a never-ending finger-picking demonstration. While undoubtedly an impressive technical display, it was not the rousing finale that I had hoped for. We left while he was still strumming away.

Am I mad at Ben Harper? No. There were too many mitigating circumstances to completely write him off. But I am left wondering if his reputation is outdated. Bono still gives you the shirt off his back every night. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that mere mortals do the same.

Set List:

  1. Glory & Consequence
  2. Number With No Name
  3. Faded
  4. Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Free
  5. Diamonds On The Inside
  6. Masterpiece
  7. Spilling Faith
  8. Suzie Blue
  9. Lay There & Hate Me
  10. Where Could I Go


  1. Mutt
  2. Lifeline
  3. Walk Away
  4. Another Lonely Day
  5. Power of the Gospel
  6. Forever
  7. Helpless (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover)
  8. Excuse Me Mr.
  9. Better Than I Deserve

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