His sound system may have been working against him, but blues-rock singer and guitarist Ben Harper always had the fans on his side during his Friday night performance at the Arlington Theatre.
The venue never once looked full as clusters of empty seats at the rear of the auditorium floor were glaringly apparent throughout the night, though that may have been in part to fans hanging out in the aisles and crowding toward the front of the stage.
Taking this caveat into account, the room still most likely still would have had vacant spots, but those in attendance defined quality over quantity as they cheered on Mr. Harper’s superb guitar playing and in-tune, but thin vocals.
The first warning sign that Mr. Harper’s voice would be done little justice by the PA system came with the opening set by Hey, King, an indie rock band whose upcoming album was produced by Mr. Harper. As co-frontwomen Natalie London and Taylor Plecity sang in unison, their combined voices sounded downright tinny. When Mr. Harper took the stage at 9 p.m. with his backup band The Innocent Criminals, he introduced his set with the soulful “Gold to Me,” his voice buried between his slinky lap steel guitar playing.
This persisted through most of the night, with Mr. Harper’s guitar heavily favored in the mix. Under those circumstances, it was at least fortunate that Mr. Harper played an absolute blinder on his variety of guitars, particularly his trademark lap steel. From the groovy vibe of “Gold to Me” to the belligerent attitude of his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” Mr. Harper displayed impressive emotional versatility on his instruments. However, in the case of the latter, the singer’s voice stood no chance against his cranked-up guitar distortion, and much less against the percussive barrage of Innocent Criminals drummer Oliver Charles, whose rapid flourishes emulated the gunfire suggested in the song’s title.
After a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s funk classic “Superstition,” the show settled down as Mr. Harper took up an acoustic guitar to perform ballads “Walk Away” and “Forever.” The former featured the frontman without The Innocent Criminals, and the result represented the opposite edge of the sword as the evening’s heavier numbers. When not covered up by loud electric guitar, Mr. Harper’s vocals sounded even more noticeably thin, sometimes reedy enough to make one wince.
For the audience, the weak amplification on Mr. Harper’s voice didn’t seem to matter much. When the singer broke into the catchy melodies of crowd favorites like “Steal My Kisses,” “Burn One Down,” and “Fight for Your Mind,” the whole auditorium rose to its feet and started singing along. Though much of the show he was seated, staring downward at his pedal steel guitar, donned with a hat that covered his face in shadows, not once did the singer come off as distant. Sudden eruptions of scattered screaming were common throughout the concert.
Not only was the crowd enthusiastic for Mr. Harper, but his band mates as well. Percussionist Leon Mobley received huge applause when he came down from his raised conga set to finish “Burn One Down” by slapping some fast rhythms out of an African drum. “Steal My Kisses” and “Fight for Your Mind” provided bassist Juan Nelson opportunities to display his effortless slap bass techniques with solos on both, and the latter was followed by a virtuosic instrumental duel between him and Mr. Harper on lap steel guitar.
Mr. Nelson then got a turn at lead vocals when the band kicked into a cover of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” during which the bassist’s microphone was curiously louder than Mr. Harper’s had been all evening. The bluesy “Ground on Down” was next, and finally an adequate balance between Mr. Harper’s voice and the instruments was reached.
Besides a few instances of telling the audience variations of “I love you,” Mr. Harper didn’t talk too much to the crowd save one moment in the final half hour. He began by rhetorically asking if there is anything his fans love so much that it’s part of their personal essence. For him, he said, that thing is guitars, after which he gave a shout out to local guitar shop Jensen Guitar & Music Co. His comments quickly took a political turn when Mr. Harper called for gun control.
“As much as I love my guitars, if they were killing people, you can have them,” he said.
He added, “There is nobody on this planet that loves their guns more than I love my guitars.”
Most of the audience cheered at this deviation into politics. If anybody in the room disliked it, they kept their displeasure to themselves.
“Diamonds on the Inside” and “Better Way,” finished off the main set with the crowd standing and engaged. On “Diamonds,” Mr. Harper sang one section acapella and without a microphone, giving way to a battle between the fans. Some cheered as he belted the tune out to the auditorium, and others shushed them because they wanted to hear his singing uninterrupted. The crowd sing-along that is “Better Way” ended the set on a soaring note and contained such a feeling of finality that an encore seemed almost unnecessary.
The band did return to play an encore, however, “Welcome to the Cruel World.” Antithetical to “Better Way,” this crawling number brought the show to a subdued conclusion. Nevertheless, as Mr. Harper whisper-sang “I will gladly say goodbye,” the number felt like an appropriate closer and it seemed like smatterings of cheers erupted from the audience every ten to fifteen seconds. It was the last of many instances that night that proved it didn’t matter what kind of tune he played or if his voice was lost in the mix. Ben Harper had the Arlington crowd in the palm of his hand from the start and he couldn’t have lost them even if he wanted to.