Mod Club Theatre, Toronto - April 10, 2006

Mark Daniell - For JAM! Music

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

TORONTO - On his latest disc, "Both Sides Of The Gun," Californian singer-songwriter-producer, Ben Harper, for the most part, gives his Innocent Criminal bandmates the day off, exposing listeners to varying sides of his own multifaceted musicality.

Split into two distinct halves, the 60-plus minute epic finds the 36-year-old painting soundscapes characterized by soft-spoken balladry ("Morning Yearning," Happy Everafter In Your Eyes"); cascading power-rock ("Serve Your Soul"); barbed, funk-inspired political attacks ("Black Rain"); Eastern-tinged psychedelia ("Better Way"); and flawless radio-friendly fodder ("Get It Like You Like It").

Last night at Toronto's Mod Club Theatre, Harper showcased the disc for several hundred contest winners and record execs. But what was supposed to be an hour-long set took on a life of its own, ending up two hours later as one of the city's biggest musical surprises in years.

Sauntering onstage garbed in a chocolate-coloured pull-on hat and baby blue tee, closely resembling his exceptionally good-looking audience, an extended plucking monologue ushered in a hushed, "Power Of The Gospel" (from 1995's "Fight For Your Mind").

Begging forgiveness for a few missed notes, Harper's striking, half-whispered vocals on "Another Lonely Day" and "Walk Away" (from 1994's "Welcome To The Cruel World") seduced audience members with bittersweet lyrics of love and heartbreak.

Sounding Cat Stevens-like on the spare, "I Shall Not Walk Alone" (from 1997's "The Will To Live"), Harper used the song's evangelical coda to segue into a minutes-long slide-infused acoustic solo that gave way to the haunting instrumental, "11th Commandment" (from 2004's "There Will Be A Light").

Adding country-flecked layers to its beautifully sparse structure, the song was the perfect introduction to the Gospel-flavoured, "Well, Well, Well."

Basking in the night's first thunderous ovation, Harper invited Innocent Criminal alumni, Michael Ward, to join him in a rollicking version of "Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating" (a "Gallows Pole"-like number from "Both Sides'" electric disc).

Forgetting for a moment that he's happily married (to actress Laura Dern), Harper switched gears with the melancholically gorgeous "Reason To Mourn" and "Picture In A Frame" (both from "Both Sides'" acoustic set).

Gazing out onto the well-heeled crowd, the singer looked taken aback. "Y'all can dress," he joked. "New York's got nothing on you."

Buoyed by the enthusiastic reception for the set's new songs, lullaby renderings of "Cryin' Won't Help You Now," "Never Leave Lonely Alone," "Morning Yearning" and "Waiting For You" highlighted the singer's quiet simplicity, while the Stones-ish "Engraved Invitation" gave him ample room to flex his soulful vocals.

A politically-minded artist, Harper proved one person's voice is enough to silence George Bush's shrinking majority. In introducing "Both Sides,'" "Gather 'Round The Stone," he acknowledged that certain wars had to be fought, but warned that "the Iraq war doesn't make any of us more free."

Leaving no stone unturned, Harper and Ward unearthed juicy acoustic notes in an emotive versions of "Please Bleed," "There Will Be A Light" and "Where Would I Go?" closing out the evening's main set.

Having perfectly captured a night's worth of songs about getting lost and finding oneself all over again, Harper returned for what was supposed to be a two-song encore. But after embellished versions of "In The Lord's Arms" and the Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work," the singer rooted himself to the stage.

"Let it go down in history that there are Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals fans," he said, swigging from a bottle of red wine.

Flying by the seat of their pants, Harper and Ward looked at each other before instinctively sounding the opening strains of "Forever."

Like kids in a candy store, the pair's sunny disposition continued on "Suzie Blue" and the audience sing-a-long, "Diamonds On The Inside."

Having toweled off, and with the spectre of the club's curfew looming in the distance, Harper and Ward smiled, half shrugged and ended the set with "Glory & Consequence."

Basking in the audience's voluminous affection, the singer stuck around and shook hands with the throngs pressed up near the stage.

Definitely a night where more was, well, more. But in a good way.

Ben Harper returns to Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre on September 2nd. Ticket details will be announced shortly.


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