Ben Harper @ Birmingham Symphony Hall – 29th April 2014


Ben Harper is one of those artists that is pretty big in most parts of the world, and I’m talking a triple Grammy Award winning, multiple number one album in multiple countries kind of big! Yet somehow he is not particularly well known over here in the UK. I remember first hearing the mellow guitar-fuelled sounds of Harper back in 2003 in Australia, so I was quite looking forward to seeing him perform at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

It came as no surprise that it was a pretty mixed crowd that had turned out to see tonight’s show, from groups of twenty somethings to couples into their fifties and beyond. The night started with Harper appearing on stage in his trademark wide brimmed hat to a rapturous applause, and although the venue wasn’t nearly full, it was clear that tonight’s audience were looking forward to the show, and gathering by the number of instruments on the stage (I counted at least 4 guitars and 2 pianos with others appearing throughout the night ) it was looking promising.

Things started with Harper picking up his Wiessenborn slide guitar for the first track of the evening, ‘Strut’, an instrumental that was first heard just a few nights ago on the opening night of the UK leg of this tour. This was followed by a few more from the huge back catalogue that’s at Harpers fingertips, with him swapping from his lap guitar to one of the other many guitars at his disposal.Pretty soon we are four songs in and I’m thinking that this could be a long night. It’s not that I didn’t like what I was hearing, because I did, but everything just sounded a bit too formulaic and similar to one another and Harper even seemed a little uncomfortable on stage.

That was when things started to change and Harper picked up both his electric guitar (we will forget for a moment that it is an acoustic gig) and the tempo for ‘Excuse Me Mr’ followed by ‘Fight Outta You’, during which Harper asked the crowd to join in with the catchy chorus. By this point things were just staring to warm up for both the audience and Harper. It took a while to get going but eventually most were joining in. Harper then showed us his rockier side with some great guitar solos during ‘Please Me’.

It was then over to the piano to slow things down again with a stunning cover of Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ where Harper confirmed what we already knew – that he’s a super talented multi instrumentalist.


What followed next was a a folk tinged instrumental back on the lap guitar that I think lasted around 15 minutes, though I’m not sure as I was just as captivated as everyone else in the room at the time. It was very impressive and finished with huge applause and cheers from the crowd. It took a while but that was it, job done. Harper had the room well and truly on board and he seemed much more relaxed onstage with it.

After a couple more songs Harper stood up, tipped his hat a wished us all a goodnight, but we weren’t going to let him go just as things were starting to get really good so after a minute or so of clapping he appeared back onstage for an encore. Only this time with his mother Ellen Harper in tow. They performed three songs of their new collaborative album Childhood Home, with the support act Tom Freund joining them for ‘I Was Born To Love You’. They seemed to really enjoy playing together and it was quite nice to watch, with Ben sharing how important his family had been in his musical journey and joking about having his mum accompany him on tour.

All three then disappeared off stage, but after a little more clapping, some cheering and feet stomping from the audience Ben made his way back onstage for encore number two which effectively turned into another full set. Harper started with some new unreleased material before heading into the Indian tambura backed song that was ‘Better Way’. There was more interaction forming now with a little banter flowing around the room and a few people yelling out requests whenever there was a pause in the music.

Next were arguably Harper’s two biggest hits so far with ‘Walk Away’ and ‘Forever’, and the audience were clearly pleased at hearing both. At this point the show had been going for over two hours and there were a few people starting to leave. I imagine mostly to catch trains or to avoid parking tickets.


Then came the the vocal performance of the night with a sublime cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. I feel inclined to say that he sounds a little like Lenny Kravitz and Eagle Eye Cherry with a little Finley Quaye thrown in at times for good measure, when in fact he is far better than all of them.

The night ended with Freund being brought back on stage with the pair of them performing one of Harper’s earliest songs, ‘Pleasure And Pain’. The set then ended with the lights dimming completely, leaving the stage in absolute darkness which was quickly followed by a well deserved standing ovation from everyone in the room.

I left the Symphony Hall feeling both pleased with what I’d seen and yet slightly exhausted. Ben Harper is clearly very good at what he does, he manages to write clever and meaningful lyrics which at the same time are uncomplicated and easy to listen to. I am also slightly jealous of the fact that he seems to have the ability to pick up any instrument and play it like he was born with it in his hand. He well and truly showed that he is not restricted by genre in the slightest, with everything from blues to folk and soul to rock being played tonight, and then of course there is his voice, which is possibly the finest that I have heard live from a male solo artist.

My biggest criticism with tonight’s show was that it seemed to take Harper quite a while to get the crowd warmed up and to appear comfortable on stage, which surprised me for a man that has toured so frequently for the past twenty years. Also, two and a half hours was a bit too long for all but the most die hard fans I think. If he had got the audience going sooner and perhaps knocked forty minutes or so off the set then tonight’s performance could have been flawless, but overall still a great gig. Thank you Mr Harper.



Welcome To The Cruel World
Number Three
Roses From My Friends
Excuse Me Mr
Fight Outta You
Please Bleed
Fade Into You
Don’t Give Up On Me Now
All My Heart Can Take
Diamonds On The Inside

Encore 1:
City Of Dreams (feat. Ellen Harper)
Learn It All Again Tomorrow (feat. Ellen Harper)
Born To Love You (feat. Ellen Harper & Tom Freund)

Encore 2:
Trying Not To Fall In Love With You
Better Way
Amen Omen
Walk Away
I Trust You To Dig My Grave
Burn One Down
Pleasure And Pain (feat. Tom Freund)

Review – John Dent
Photos – Steve Roche

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