With an image approximating Public Enemy’s gun-sight logo looming large behind them on the Bowl’s stage, Ben Harper’s seven-piece collective — the Innocent Criminals — delivered a rousing set, from the first song Harper ever wrote (poignant “Pleasure and Pain”) to the pop-blues rocker off his defiant 2016 album, Call It What It Is.
Sounding like a young Robert Cray, Harper opened with the hooky, nostalgic opener “When Sex Was Dirty.” Another highlight was the new record’s fierce title track, with racially charged lyrics thematically recalling obscure bluesman J.B. Lenoir’s Civil Rights–era commentary “Alabama Blues.” The year may be different, but it’s the same ole song in Harper’s update: “There’s good cops / Bad cops / White cops / Black cops / Call it what it is … murder.” Harper’s version also mentions recent high-profile victims of police brutality: “Trevon Martin / Ezel Ford / Michael Brown / And so many, many more.”
After solo-ing it with his slide guitar, another guitarist and the drummer returned to plug in, and Harper employed his falsetto on the brooding “Waiting on an Angel” before hightailing into “Ground on Down.” The bobbing, reggae-tinged “Finding Our Way” allowed the singer to glean easy cheers for an interpolating part of Bob Marley’s “Trench Town Rock.”
If I have a major criticism, it’s this: Harper has a technique of playing slide guitar on his lap while sitting down (“old school,” in his words), and while the songs are rousing, seeing him facing downward (in a hat, no less) while performing such tunes as the otherwise effervescent “Shine” creates some disconnect between him and the audience. Thankfully, the opening conga drums then ushered in the full band on the impassioned “Don’t Take That Attitude to Your Grave” (off 1994’s Welcome to the Cruel World), and you realized why his fans packed this venue to begin with.