Ben Harper stayed his welcome at Toronto's Massey Hall, where hope wore a white hat and where the man played solo but never alone. He promised (literally) the shirt off his back, and left the stage three hours later without it (literally). He did his protest music eloquently and profoundly, and was sweeter at times too.
On the gentle melancholy and realization of Walk Away, he sang about things “so hard to do but easy to say.” Walking away from the acoustic-soul communion Saturday evening seemed like the toughest thing of all for the big-hearted troubadour to do.
“It’s so easy to overstate one’s musical point,” said Harper, who would break the hall's curfew but fix other things, “and I am most certainly going to do that.”
Harper is a 42-year-old double-Grammy-winning Californian who has built up a large following without benefit of hit singles. He has made gospel music with the Blind Boys of Alabama and soul-rock music with his band the Innocent Criminals. And he has made two children with his now estranged wife, the actress Laura Dern.
A man in the front row at Massey proposed marriage to his fiancé, who accepted, we heard. Harper took to the lip of the stage, with a guitar but no amplification, to perform the tender ballad Forever.
Harper told a lighthearted story about Jeff Buckley, before his riveting rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (covered famously by the late Buckley).
A highlight came during another cover, Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City. Harper had a gallery of acoustic guitars on stage, but for Atlantic City used an electric Telecaster – “Bruce would never forgive me” if he hadn’t have.
There was a pause at one point in the song, after which an audience member yelled out a “1-2-3-4” lead in, in perfect time. The white-hatted Harper thanked him and went on to sing about winners and losers and getting caught on the wrong side of that line.
Harper played vibraphones, ukuleles, a tobacco-sunburst Stratocaster, an upright piano, a National steel and his lap-played weissenborn. And he played with the man with a watch on the side of the stage, who was persuaded to allow Harper to play one more song five or six times.
He performed Oppression, Diamonds on the Inside and urged us not to let anyone “take the fight outta you.” He did not play Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, though it was requested from the sold-out crowd that he do so.
When a female fan told him, “You give me hope,” he answered that she did exactly the same for him.
When a male fan yelled out an unknown lyric – “toes in my shoes; feet to the ground” – Harper offered him his shirt for the right to use the line. (He finished the show in just a T-shirt.)
On the Marley-lite of Burn One Down, he gently advocated herb legalization and free choice – “If you don’t like my fire, don’t come around.”
Harper ended with Suzy Blue on the ukulele, “sing me something my heart can use.” He had done just that, all night, his voice, light and fire irresistible.
An Acoustic Evening with Ben Harper plays Maison Symphonique de Montréal, Oct. 1.