After a nice outdoor dinner at Dumon Burger in Williamsburg, Alison and I headed over to the Music Hall of Williamsburg for the Ben Harper and Relentless 7 show. This was the group’s 2nd official show this week (they also played Tuesday at Webster Hall and Ben played the Pete Seeger 90th birthday show at MSG) and the one at the smallest venue I believe. Apparently Ben views this as a group rather than a backing band and refers to the collective entity I hadn’t seen Ben since he played the 2001 Spring Fling at Yale and I remembered a somewhat sedate show, not just because he was still firmly ensconced in a folk style back then but also because I felt like his lap style of playing prevented him from connecting with the crowd. At the same time I’ve grown to love his music, especially his more recent projects including the album he recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama and his foray into rock with Both Sides of the Gun which was at least partially recorded with the same musicians in Relentless 7. The band is just 4 including Harper, Jason Mozersky as a seriously rocking lead guitar, Jordan Richardson pounding out some seriously driving drums, and Jesse Ingalls on bass.
We arrived just before the Henry Clay People went on — a pair of brothers from LA on guitars backed by a drummer and bassist. Apparently the brothers got a call on Monday saying they might be picked for the Relentless 7 tour, quit their jobs, and then luckily got confirmation that they were a go on Wednesday or Thursday before driving out to DC to begin the tour. At first I felt that the band was channeling an angry Rhett Miller but they were definitely more on the rock than pop side of things. They brought a good deal of energy to the stage. As they ended their set I got the distinct impression that I would be pleased to walk into a bar or club with these guys playing. I’m curious to see where they go.
Relentless 7 came on around 10:30 and played a solid hour and a half with the musicianship spot on from the start and the energy increasing as the show went on, especially the last half of the set. They opened with “Number With No Name,” the first track of White Lies for Dark Times which featured Ben sitting. The second song I didn’t recognize, but the third was”Shimmer & Shine” which appears to be the first single off of White Lies.
The show also featured several extended versions of songs from White Lies including a good amount of crowd participation during “Boots Like These,” some serious guitar solos for “Lay There & Hate Me” and “Why Must You Always Dress in Black.”
When the first ballad on White Lies, “Skin Thin” came on I wasn’t sure that they would succeed in the album, but they demonstrate that Ben hasn’t lost the softness of his touch touch from his earlier folk days. The ballads also mesh in beautifully, often building to powerful, emotionally charged solos. “Skin Thin” live was no exception. I was surprised though, that a good number in the crowd were talking during the song. The venue is extremely small (the venue holds 550), the ticket limit was 2 when they show went on sale, and a number in the crowd seemed extremely devoted fans so I didn’t expect this given how the band commanded their attention during the rest of the show. I believe the main set concluded with “The Word Suicide” another solid ballad from the album and then “Boots Like These” – but I wasn’t keeping notes.
They played almost the entire album in the main set. The band came back out for the encore set, opening with the classic Harper tune “Another Lonely Day” from Fight for Your Mind. The crowd loved it and sang along. Next came “Faithfully Remain.” The biggest surprise of the night might have been when Jesse Ingalls started laying down the bass line to David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” There’s a little video below so you can get a taste, but the energy was high and Ben was just pouring a 110% into it. They closed down the encore with another track from the new album, “Up To You Now” I think.
Overall the concert was excellent. The energy that Harper brought to the stage was definitely up there with the best performers I’ve seen in the past year or two since Springsteen (who shall never be bested) including Feist, the Waco Brothers, and Wilco. But his energy had to build. I couldn’t tell if he was shy or just intensely focused on his songs, but for the first half of the show Ben just seemed to be concentrating on emoting through his vocals and guitar playing. He often had his eyes closed and the other performers didn’t seem to make eye contact with the audience. While the songs were strong the connection with the audience wasn’t. As the energy of the songs continued to build it seemed to help Ben open up to the point where he was leaping around the stage during the songs where he wasn’t playing guitar and at one point slapping the hands of audience members in the front row. After the encore, Ben did something I had only seen Springsteen do before. He remained on stage, acknowledged some audience members with pointed fingers and just seemed to soak up the love and appreciation that was being directed at him. His face during this showed earnest appreciation which, I think, is one of the greatest gifts that a musician can give in addition to the music itself.