Ben Harper casts a stunning spell as acoustic tour kicks off at the Michigan Theater
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Ben Harper conjured up his grandparents’ California music shop on Wednesday, delivering a performance that was as intimate and low-key as a casual in-store gig, even if it was before an adoring, sold-out Michigan Theater audience.
Kicking off the first performance of a solo, mostly acoustic tour, the singer-songwriter showed no signs of first-night jitters during his nearly two-and-a-half-hour show that touched on old favorites, brand-new tunes and a handful of well-chosen covers.
“It’s great to be back here in Ann Arbor,” Harper said, after fans wouldn’t stop clapping long enough for him to even begin his set. “Has it been 11 years? Has it come to that?
“It’s a relief to be here.”
Harper at least seemed relaxed. Cycling through no fewer than a dozen guitars of all shapes, sizes and tunings, he was sure-handed and clear-voiced and ever-so-charming as he veered off course to play take requests or improvise on insutrumental numbers.
Working without a setlist—“Which might have been a mistake,” he said, although it wasn’t—he was many different performers on Wednesday: the bluesman with the deep-down, guttural wail; the singer-songwriter of sensitive, '70s-inspired love songs; and the soul crooner with the sensual purr.
That he can be all these things—and more—at once is Harper’s particular genius, and it was on full display on Wednesday.
Some people are just musical, and Harper is one of them. On Wednesday, he crafted works of depth and beauty from the simplest phrases, coaxing melodies out of thin air, then finding harmonies to hang on top of those.
The result was a magical, musical spell like few others—Neil Young comes to mind, as does Bela Fleck—can deliver. Tunes like “Diamonds on the Inside,” "Loving You is My Masterpiece” and “Opression” were faithful to the originals, while new tunes like “Try Not to Fall In Love,” delivered on a charmingly out-of-tune upright piano, received its first-ever live performance.
Harper is the kind of virtuoso performer who doesn’t dazzle with flash or technique. On each of the myriad instruments he picked up on Wednesday, he never seemed sure where the next note was going to land, yet he always ended up in the right place at the right time. A playful turn on vibraphone is a case in point, with Harper delivering a stunning vocal over a simple, circular pattern.
His take on the Motown classic “(I Heard it Through the) Grapevine” was a bluesy wail, while his Jeff Buckley-inspired reading of “Hallelujah” brought new weight to even this most played-out cover.
By this time the crowd was really feeling the spirit and, as he closed out his main set with his stoner anthem “Burn One Down,” the old theater smelled like an Amsterdam coffeeshop.
But Harper still had a lot more to give, and his half-hour encore found him smoldering through a fuzzed-out “Better Way,” and as a rocked-up cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” before he sat down at the front of the stage with an acoustic guitar and a ulelele to say goodnight with a couple of tunes, including the charming, swingy “Suzie Blue.”
“This is the best-sounding room I’ve ever played music in,” he said once the cheers subsided for long enough for him to be heard. And on Wednesday at least, it’s doubtful anyone in the Michigan Theater would have disagreed.