No support act. No backing band. No intermission. Just three hours of Ben Harper unencumbered and uninterrupted at the Sydney Opera House. The iconic venue carries with it a certain reverence and expectation of attentive reserve, but as soon as Harper steps onto the stage any notions of modesty are forgotten.
Harper is immediately greeted by gushing fans expressing their admiration for the visibly humbled musician. One audience member yells, “I love you, Ben.” To which Harper replies, “I love you more.”
Another voice from behind excitedly asks, “Like our house, Ben?”
“I love your house,” Harper declares.
As the back and forth between Harper and the audience carries on, a gentlemen towards the front informs Harper he proposed to his partner before coming to the show. Harper quips he’s already been upstaged by the newly engaged couple and references his own marriage concluding that he is a ‘girl’s worst nightmare’.
“Bring it on!” shouts an eager lady, to the hilarity of the crowd.
As the crowd settles and Harper finally takes his seat the musical portion of the program begins. The stage setting consists of a piano stage right and a xylophone stage left, with around a dozen variations of string instruments in-between. Although probably all playable, most of the string instruments serve as purely decorative. Harper later explains their presence, along with the backdrop pictured above, are an attempt to recreate the environment of his family owned music store the Folk Music Centre.
Opening with an instrumental piece on a lap steel the soothing music not only helps shake off the Monday blues but blurs all time and space. The instrumental eventually drifts into Pleasure and Pain from Harper’s 1994 debut album Welcome to the Cruel World. Even though the song is nearly 20 years old Harper breathes new life into the true and tried lyrics.
After finishing up Blessed To Be A Witness, Harper once again opens up a dialogue with the recently betrothed couple. Harper somehow stumbles into alluding that the three of them should get together. His efforts to clear himself of innuendo lead to Harper insisting he is not enough for one person let alone two. Harper then makes the error of admitting that he is ‘harmful when swallowed’ leading to the Opera House erupting with laughter.
Harper is also taken off guard by his social faux pas, sheepishly keeling over in amusement. The American performer is quite animated while talking to fans. With his hands often outstretched to the stands or ceiling in awe of the people and the building that houses his flock, Harper appears without pretence in his appreciation.
When asked by Harper if they have any requests, the freshly engaged couple draw a blank in what must have been a truly surreal moment for them. Someone helps out by requesting The Verves’ The Drugs Don’t Work and Harper launches into his classic cover. As Harper kinks his head back and sings to the sky there exists a touch of Ray Charles in his gospel delivery.
Moving through the well-received Diamonds On The Inside, Harper then dedicates new track Masterpiece to the couple, who will surely recall this night in their wedding speech.
A couple songs on, Harper gives a rousing rendition of Excuse Me Mr. Darting about the microphone it’s almost as though Harper is a one-man surround sound system. At times Harper moves away from the mic altogether allowing the acoustics of the concert hall to lift his voice to the rafters.
Harper’s voice carries the weight of his words and not a syllable is wasted in conveying his message. As great as his records are, Harper’s considerable abilities are slightly wasted on an audio-only medium where you can’t witness the music move through his body.
The enthralling evening continues with Harper often linking a story to songs of special significance. An endearing tale of Harper winning over one of his son’s preschool classmates preempts the Curious George version of My Own Two Hands. Harper then takes to the xylophone as he covers Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye and Pearl Jam’s Indifference. Gaye is covered once again a couple of songs later when Harper adjusts the Sexual Healing lyric: ‘There is something I can do / I can get on the telephone and send you a text baby.’
Story time resumes as Harper recalls a man dressed like Beethoven’s best friend approaching him at a European music festival. The man in question was Jeff Buckley, who promptly put his guitar around Harper and then asked to be shown how to play slide guitar. The memory serves as an introduction to a lap slide guitar version of Hallelujah, which Harper credits as being as much a Buckley song as it is Leonard Cohen’s. Harper also praises Buckley for accomplishing with his album Grace what most musicians never do in a lifetime.
Next comes a very touching and personal account of friendship. Without mentioning the title, Harper acknowledges that some songs are ‘impossible to play’ due to the loss they represent. With that Harper speaks candidly about his friendship with Heath Ledger. Without Harper’s prior knowledge Leger had his piano delivered to Harper’s house, which he now plays every morning when home. Harper then gives a spine tingling yet burdened performance of Morning Yearning, for which Ledger directed the music video.
Morning Yearning concludes the set but not the night as Harper reappears for the expected encore. After the piano driven new song Trying Not To Fall In Love With You, which has a kind of show tune quality, Harper shares another musical moment. This time Harper happily recounts Bruce Springsteen’s mum complimenting him after Harper covered one of her son’s tracks. With a nod to ‘St. Bruce’, Harper covers Springsteen’s Atlantic City.
A slightly honky tonk version of Steal My Kisses along with Waiting On An Angel, Power Of The Gospel and Please Bleed comprise the remaining encore. The dim red lighting that hits Harper while playing Please Bleed works as visual representation of the song’s seething. Harper pounds his electric guitar, obliterating the room with fuzz while working in Nirvana’s Something In The Way.
Harper leaves the stage to a standing ovation but there’s still a second encore to come. Amen Omen kicks off the final installment of the night. Harper responds to a fan’s expression of thanks by thanking them and noting that if not for those in attendance he’d be at his house as opposed to the Opera house. After playing When She Believes Harper picks up his ukulele for the final song of the evening. Addressing the crowd without the aid of a microphone, the audience collectively listens intently as Harper expresses his gratitude. Harper’s sentiment is heartfelt as he stuggles to find the words to encapsulate his experience performing before the Opera House.
Unplugged in the truest sense, Harper sits on the edge of the stage, his feet dangling in the front row, and sings Suzie Blues.
When it’s all over, Harper is treated to a extended standing ovation and in turn remains on stage as he shakes peoples hands, bumps fists, waves and repeatedly thanks his fans.
Tonight Harper has been a spiritual guide of sorts yet his inspiring presence is not that of a mystical musician who is afforded the luxury of ideals because they live isolated from a corrupted society. Instead, Harper is captivating because he too is a flawed human being who deals with the daily distortion of morality and still emerges a person of principle.
This evening was not a reverence of man but rather the sanctity of music and the integrity it represents.