Ben Harper and Massey Hall made beautiful music together on Saturday
By Ben Fisher
Rare is the concert that offers the perfect marriage of venue and performer, but Saturday night’s Ben Harper show at Massey Hall came close. The 118-year-old “Old Lady of Shuter Street,” which Harper referred to at one point during his two-hour-plus set as “one of the most beautiful music halls anywhere in the world,” provided the ideal atmosphere for the eclectic musician’s spontaneity and crowd interaction.
Harper earned the affection of his fans early on when he demonstrated his wide-ranging musical skills by going through eight different instruments (a piano, a keyboard and six different guitars) within the first hour of the set, highlighted by an extended slide guitar riff. His need to change things up bordered on the obsessive — no two consecutive songs featured the same instrumental accompaniment.
The crowd played along, not just cheering every change in Harper’s musical arsenal, but also shouting out song requests (many of which were answered, including “Pleasure and Pain” and “Another Lonely Day”) and vocalizing their affection for the singer-songwriter. At one point, a male audience member told the 42-year-old that “you got me shaking right down to my toes.” The quick-witted Harper took the comment in stride, suggesting that he could use that line as a song lyric and even offered the shirt off his back in exchange for the rights to it.
For all the love that Harper received from the crowd on hand, he gave plenty of it back. On top of the requests and fan interaction, he serenaded a couple seated in the front row with his love ballad “Forever.” He also engaged the crowd with stories about Bruce Springsteen and Jeff Buckley, among others.
Even the flaws in Harper’s set produced a refreshing, rare glimpse into the musician’s process. On several occasions, he picked up a guitar only to find it not quite tuned to his liking. While the crowd may have seen more of Harper’s technician than they cared for, it did paint the picture of a perfectionist who was completely in charge of his own show. This wasn’t exactly the over-produced, staged shows of Britney Spears or The Black Eyed Peas.
Saturday night wasn’t Harper’s first time playing Massey Hall, and he showed a high level of comfort and ease within his cozy surroundings. At many points throughout the night, he enhanced the close-knit feel of the show by stepping away from the mic and singing directly to the crowd, putting the “acoustic” into a show that was billed as “an acoustic evening with Ben Harper.”
In the end, Saturday’s show represented a night for true music lovers — a skilled, multi-faceted musician playing in front of knowledgeable, appreciative fans at a historic, intimate venue.