By BRUCE DENNILL
Ben Harper / Sun Arena Time Square, Pretoria
Ben Harper is an artist who is fiercely proud of his independent, alternative status, which makes witnessing his performances intriguing, as whatever he has in mind for a particular show or tour will be, more or less by default, more interesting than the straightforward formulae of a middle-of-the-road pop singer.
Which makes his decision to perform solo on his South African dates – and to play a set of generally quiet, thoughtful pieces – especially fascinating. Striding on following support sets from Auriol Hays and the sublime Soweto Gospel Choir (passion, stamina and twinkle-eyed audience engagement to go with precision and wonderful natural collective chops), Harper sits in the centre of a semi-circle of guitars, with an upright piano off to one side. He has a couple of lap steels, a couple of six-string acoustic guitars, a 12-string acoustic and an archtop that he also plays as a lap steel – elements of carefully fashioned arrangements filled out with crafted reverb and effects that make the guitars sound natural, but rich and huge. To that he adds his distinctive voice: spice, honey, heart, humour and yearning. And suddenly the concerns of those in the auditorium who were confused when it became clear that Harper would not be joined by a band (be that The Innocent Criminals, the Blind Boys Of Alabama, Relentless7 or recent collaborator Charlie Musselwhite) were confirmed as utterly unfounded.
Harper is not one, on the evidence of this show, for too much audience banter, and his first few songs are spent focused on his playing and singing, which are both scrupulous and stylised, using unconventional strumming and picking patterns and mic techniques that are, while idiosyncratic, sometimes also reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s swaying soulfulness.
There are a good many older songs in the set, from the extended take on Power Of The Gospel that opens the concert to the evergreen (as it were) paen to weed Burn One Down. Everything sits beautifully together, of a type but set apart by subtle details and musicianship. Trust You To Dig My Grave, recorded with Charlie Musselwhite, is a highlight, with Harper playing the 12-string guitar in a bluesy, percussive way that very few players can – or would have considered trying.
Welcome To The Cruel World, Excuse Me Mr and a couple of other songs poetically highlight the complexity of living in societies where disparate perspectives are inevitable.
The developing rapport between Harper and his audience means there is a growing warmth as the performer becomes (slightly) more verbose and chirps from the floor are responded. And from this excellent platform, the gig takes off when the Soweto Gospel Choir return to the stage to back Harper for hard-hitting activist anthem Call It What It Is, encouragement to aim for positive change in With My Own Two Hands and superb, heartfelt hit Diamonds On The Inside, which closes the main set. At several points in this part of the show, Harper seems close to being emotionally overwhelmed by the choir’s input, turning to face them mid-song and once having to pause and then repeat a line when he is simply, and happily, distracted by the beauty of their contribution and what it adds to his own fantastic work.
The singer emerges on his own for the quiet craving of Waiting On An Angel before making way – literally; he sings one verse from the back row and then just listens and enjoys – for the Soweto Gospel Choir and a closing interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a cliched choice of cover version, but one given fresh soul and panache here.
Harper regularly proclaimed himself “honoured” to be performing for his South African fans. With a performance of this quality and sensitivity, that’s a good term with which to describe the audience’s feelings about being in the room as he played.
A rare, evocative musical experience.