THURSDAY, JULY 13, 2017
NORTHERN ALBERTA JUBILEE AUDITORIUM - 7:30PM
It had been seven years since Ben Harper last played a show
with the Innocent Criminals, so when the time came to
reunite for a live tour in 2015, the band-percussionist
Leon Mobley, bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles,
keyboardist Jason Yates, and guitarist Michael Ward-quickly
discovered that Harper had more in mind than simply
revisiting the group's prodigious collection of hits. In
fact, Harper had been quietly amassing material for a new
record, Call It What It Is, and the first recording
sessions were scheduled to begin even before the rehearsals
for their triumphant four-night sold-out reunion run at the
Fillmore in San Francisco.
"I thought we would be more energized and revitalized by
thinking outside the box and starting with new material in
the studio before we dug into the old stuff," explains
Harper. "It was meant to be a signpost that we're here to
forge new ground musically and personally. Because of that,
the older material started to sound brand new too."
Beginning with his 1994 debut, Welcome To The Cruel World,
Harper released a string of eight studio albums over a
decade and a half. This extraordinary run, featuring
contributions from the Innocent Criminals, established him
as a singularly powerful songwriter and performer with
range across multiple genres and an unmatched ability to
blend the personal and political. The accolades poured in-
Rolling Stone hailed his "jewels of unique and exquisitely
tender rock & roll," while Entertainment Weekly praised his
"casual profundity," and Billboard said his music "reminds
us of the power and beauty of simplicity." Massive,
international sold-out tours, Top 10 debuts in the US, Gold
and Platinum certifications overseas, and a slew of TV
appearances cemented Harper and the band's status as
genuine global stars.
"The process of working outside of my comfort zone is
really important to my growth," explains Harper. "The
situations I've put myself in have pushed me further than I
could go in any familiar setting, and that's what's brought
me back full circle to the Innocent Criminals now.
Everybody went out and grew in their own ways during our
time apart, and that's brought this heightened level of
appreciation for each other and what we do."
"Each member brings a wealth of knowledge and different
styles of music," said Nelson. "What makes us unique is
that we come from different places musically and we seem to
complement each other because of the different styles that
"Playing with the Innocent Criminals again is like riding a
bike," adds Charles, "but that bike has gotten tons of
upgrades and modifications since the last time. There was a
feeling I had missed for so long that you can only get from
From the opening minutes of Call It What It Is, it's clear
that that feeling has never been more powerful or
exhilarating. The album kicks off with "When Sex Was
Dirty," a song that Harper had earmarked for the Innocent
Criminals from the moment he wrote it. It's all classic
rock and roll bravado, full of electric guitar swagger,
driving percussion, and seductive energy. Harper follows it
up by demonstrating that his range is wider than ever with
the utterly vulnerable "Deeper and Deeper," a near-
whispered acoustic moment of introspection co-written with
Ward, who says that despite the time apart, or perhaps
because of it, the band is now "closer than ever as
musicians and as human beings."
It's on the album's bluesy title track, though, that Harper
cuts to the quick. "There's good cops and bad cops / White
cops and black cops / Got to call it what it is / Murder,"
he sings before invoking the names of Trayvon Martin, Ezell
Ford, and Michael Brown.
For the first time in his career, Harper split the
recording of the album into four five-day sessions spread
across an entire year, enabling him and the band to come
back to the music with a deeper sense of objectivity. "It
gave us a chance to live with the songs for a while and let
them soak in," says Mobley, who worked with artists as
diverse as Mick Jagger and Nas during his time away from
the Innocent Criminals. "It gave us a chance to reflect,
which was important to our satisfaction and allowed us to
make good decisions."
The new album is Harper's second release for Stax Records.
Perhaps most associated with icons like Booker T & The MGs,
Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, Stax is a seamless fit for
Call It What It Is, due to its rich Civil Rights-era legacy
and its dedication to spreading soul music in all its most
powerful forms. Harper speaks reverently of the label,
describing the honor and the privilege of calling it his
home, and it's clear the history holds a special place in
his heart as both a fan and an artist.
As serious and solemn as Call It What It Is can get,
though, it's also one of Harper's most joyous records.
"Shine" grooves with blissful passion, while "Pink Balloon"
shows off a lyrical mischievousness that surprised even
Harper himself. Like so many of the other tracks, it only
fully revealed itself over time and through a free-flowing
collaboration with those closest to him.
"There's a natural way we move together and flow through
the recording of a song," explains Yates. "There's an
unspoken dialogue that runs steady through this album like
a river. The feelings evoked by these songs are coming from
the very depths of our souls. It's a sacred sharing."
The result is perhaps the proudest accomplishment of
Harper's prodigious career.
"The time we took with this record has let me look it
straight in the eyes and say that I gave everything I could
to it and that it's exactly the way we intended it to be.
To be able to say that we've left no stone unturned just
feels great." For the legions of Ben Harper fans that have
been waiting eight years for a new album with the Innocent
Criminals, it feels even better.
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