Ben Harper and The Nightwatchman: Rebellion with Rapture
By
Kathleen Meyer
6/17/2007 9:54:59 PM

Ben Harper’s concert at St. Louis’ The Pageant was sold out, and with the first note of Harper’s guitar it became obvious why. Before the main event could begin, one caught a sense of Harper’s style simply by observing his fans. Most of the attendees were in their twenties, clad in preppy polos mixed with Bohemian hippie flair.

When the lights dimmed, the Nightwatchman, side project of the infamous Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), strolled on stage. A single white spotlight fell on his favored baseball cap along with his jeans, black collared shirt, and hanging suspenders. Tom Morello could be summed up by his first song, “One Man Revolution” because that was exactly what he strived to be. His rich, deep voice began to fill the air mixing with smoke and the strumming of his guitar and harmonica sank into the sea of people. The theme of the night was established: rebellion and freedom.

Morello sang about the ordinary working man, liberty, and America. Ben Harper would eventually follow his lead, but for now the crowd seemed amused with the man who referred to himself in the third person as “The Nightwatchman” and they clapped along. As his one-man act continued, we learned he is a fan of the Rams, and can’t wait for the era of George W. Bush to end. Morello stomped his foot aggressively and played his tunes with dedication. His songs were sometimes a bit twangy, and he said half-jokingly that he sometimes forgets the words. His impromptu style almost gave the feeling that he would break out into a rendition of Jack Black’s “Tribute.”

The Nightwatchman had a string of “rebel” songs that proclaimed the working man as a hero and told of hope for the future improvement of the country. His bluesy style was also complete with impressive guitar solos. Morello’s last song gave the audience a surprise, as he sang the “uncensored” version of “This Land is Your Land.” Morello left the stage with a spirited “Never give up and never give in!”

Waiting for Ben Harper, the crowd began to chatter. Tie-dye shirts appeared in groups, and a sign for an organic bamboo T-shirt was an eye-catcher. The amount of PDA was a tad unbearable as loving couples popped up everywhere. Later it would become clear why Ben Harper could be such a good date concert. Finally, enthusiastic cheers brought out the main event, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. Bassist Juan Nelson kicked off the night with a very chill solo while dark red lights glowed on stage. Soon the melody of “Dazed and Confused” was recognized and Harper put the cherry on top with his dramatic lap-style guitar talents.

Harper sat in a chair center stage which was covered in an Indian-fashioned afghan. His appearance was approachable with his long-sleeve collared shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, not to mention his fabulous side-burns. His five other Innocent Criminals accompanied him. The crowd applauded his solos as he picked away at a different lap guitar, which he could even play upside-down. His fans also gave him a warm welcome when it was announced that his grandfather was from St. Louis and Mark McGuire’s father was his dentist.

The guitars, keyboard, percussion and drums blended together for a reggae-like, soulful rock sound. The show moved on with “Don’t Take That Attitude to Your Grave” and a wild bongo solo. Tom Morello took the stage alongside Harper, and Ben proclaimed he was a guitar hero of his. Morello proved his worth and sang another rebellious song against war. Having Morello onstage gave a great comparison of voices, casting Morello’s voice as a bit harsh against Harper’s smooth tone. Electric guitars would rule the night as rock songs against The Man were ignited. The Nightwatchman thrilled the crowd even further by playing the guitar with his teeth.

After the hero of the rebels left the stage, Ben Harper dove into a pattern of longer songs with solos. He livened the crowd with “Gold to Me” and softened them down with “Morning Yearning.” Harper’s song, “Waiting for You,” was slow and tranquil, adorned with deep purple stage lights. The PDA came back into play for this number as the couples began to sway and it felt a little like being in a romantic comedy. This mood didn’t last long; however, Harper quickened the beat with cheery percussion and a Bob Marley feel. There was a faint trace of weed in the air as well.

Harper further showcased his musical and theatrical talents with his single “Diamonds on the Inside” as he danced from the front to the back of the stage. His music consisted of a range of songs from one side of the spectrum to the other: electric and loud then acoustic and soft. He would stun the crowd with an electric guitar song then show a gentler side with his love songs. The soulful spirit of the group was strong from beginning to end and was especially seen when Innocent Criminal Leon Mobley gave a jaw-dropping performance on the bongos. He began to jump while the red, white, and green lights flashed in rhythm, all the while playing with great speed and control. The crowd clapped in beat and then began to cheer some more as Harper was called out for his encore...the first of two!

Harper graced the stage for his first encore with a few slow songs. His lyrics were heart-felt and honest, particularly those of “Walk Away.” He shared a secret with the crowd saying that people love to use his music in their weddings. Harper also sang the slower “Forever” to his tender-hearted fans. Actually, some fans were more than affectionate, shouting approval such as “Fuck yea!” and “Love you Harper!” Ben Harper also gave the crowd a treat by singing a cappella on the edge of the stage with no microphone. He belted out the words with only a gospel-like piano for accompaniment and the crowd hushed in order to hear his emotional cries.

The second encore revealed his rebellious and loud side once again. A Jimi Hendrix-style “Star-Spangled Banner” was priceless and a bass solo kept the crowd still rockin’. The Innocent Criminals ended with “Better Way” and dazzled the crowd with their funky soul sounds.

Who would have guessed that such a seemingly smooth soul man could bring the crowd to their knees with such electrifying passion and vitality? Ben Harper proved to be a worthy musical performer, and his melodies and stage presence made one leave the show with the knowledge that they had just seen something exceptional.

 

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