Just as surely as a musician changes from one instrument to another during a show, Ben Harper has wound up his 2018 No Mercy In This Land album tour with Charlie Musselwhite and stoked a new fire with his long-time backing band, The Innocent Criminals.
And, like all things Ben Harper, the latest exploration is exciting and adventurous. Harper says he’s already thinking about the set list for their show at Bluesfest, in Byron Bay, where they will appear exclusively for the festival’s 30th birthday in April 2019.
Harper is one of Bluesfest’s favourite sons, first appearing there in 1996.
Harper and The Innocent Criminals who last appeared at Bluesfest in 2015 when Harper Ben put the band back together for a special Bluesfest appearance.
“I’ve had some of the best times of my life in Australia,” he said when we spoke in June ahead of the Australian leg of the tour. “Sitting down on Bondi at Brown Sugar, eating pancakes. I love it. I cherish my time. I’ve had my family there. it's been so rare, some great moments.
“That first Byron Bay Bluesfest, Byron Bay was one of the most profound musical moments in my life. A big turning point.”
In 1995 Ben Harper released his second album, Fight For Your Mind. It included the huge hit, Burn One Down, as well as Oppression, Gold to Me, and Ground On Down.
In 1994 Harper launched his debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World, which included Waiting on an Angel and the title track.
At that first encounter with Bluesfest in 1996, the band played three shows at what was then called the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival. The Innocent Criminals were Juan Nelson, Leon Mobley and Oliver Charles – who are all still in the band today (in 2008 Jason Mozersky joined the band).
It’s gonna be a blast. I cannot wait. The Innocent Criminals are already going back and forth, about what we played last time and what we will play this time.Ben Harper on Bluesfest 2019
“Even in the moments, when my feet were well off the ground, I never failed to know where I was . . that moment at Byron Bay was one of them,” Harper said. “If I had to pinpoint five moments in my career that defined me, that would be at the top of the list.”
So it is always with great joy Harper returns to Byron, and his 2019 appearance will be no different.
“It’s gonna be a blast,” he tells me over the phone on a steamy, wet night in Nashville last month.
“I cannot wait. The Innocent Criminals are already going back and forth, about what we played last time and what we will play this time. We will be touring before that, so we will be working in the Byron set ahead of time.”
Harper has a refreshing outlook on making music – he’s never been afraid to go down new roads or take detours – witness the two albums and tour cycles with legendary harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite.
And that attitude also applies to his setlists. While he knows fans have a certain expectation, he also has his own view. He calls it finding a “healthy balance” between what fans want to hear and what he wants to play.
“You can be true to your artistic instincts and dig deep enough into the catalogue to find songs you are familiar with,” he says.
In May Harper saw Paul Simon play a concert at the Hollywood Bowl on his farewell tour. He called it inspirational, particularly with the interpretation of hits like Sounds of Silence, Kodachrome and El Condor Pasa.
Harper’s own catalogue is amazing. For reference, check his website, which holds an extensive history of his shows, songs and setlists.
So when he says “I never play the song the same way, I have yet to play a song the same way twice,” you really know what he means when he calls himself a working musician.
“A great song unfolds over time,” Harper says. “If you are in the 1 per cent of the 1 percent, if you can write a song people want to hear 25 years later, then you better damn well play it.”