Review and photos: Ben Harper at the Ritz Ybor in Tampa
A handful of hippies, a truckload of trendies and a boatload of brahs made up the majority of the crowd attending the sold-out Ben Harper and the Relentless7 show Saturday at the Ritz Ybor. The diverse group seemed to range from ages 8 to 68.
Without barricades between the floor and stage, fans sandwiched right up to the front. They clenched beers in their hands and played one-up in the dank venue.
After about a 45-minute wait of sweat and spills in the crowd, Ben Harper and the Relentless 7 — Jason Mozersky on lead guitar, Jesse Ingalls on bass and Jordan Richardson on drums — emerged and dove right into playing Diamonds on the Inside. Harper sang the first line and then turned the microphone to the audience for the entire first verse before he sang it himself. He added the first verse again at the end of the song, but with a spotlit acoustic showcasing.
And that was the beginning of what would be nearly three hours of four guys soaked in sweat and playing their hearts out. The set list spanned Ben Harper’s musical career, from his first album, Welcome to the Cruel World, to his debut release with the Relentless 7, White Lies for Dark Times. It even included tracks Feel Love and Rock & Roll Is Free from the R7’s upcoming album Give Till It’s Gone.
Harper pulled out one of his lap guitars for the second song, I Will Not Be Broken, a finely crafted, heartfelt ballad off the new record. The shift in mood illustrated Harper’s mastery of timing by being able to bring the house down, up or to tears with each melody.
By the fourth song, lap guitar still in place, Harper’s penchant for covers didn’t disappoint. He seamlessly demonstrated his knack for fusing his songs into classics with Why Must You Always Dress In Black transitioned into Redhouse by Jimi Hendrix (complete with channeling Jimi’s passion and soul). Later in the show the band fused Boots Like These into Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) and covered Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker before the last song.
The R7’s chemistry rivaled Harper’s former band, The Innocent Criminals. Harper’s handiwork is evident in both bands, but the R7’s studio and stage presence embodies and expands Harper’s genre-rich range. They serenaded, captivated and exhilarated fans with all but three tracks from White Lies for Dark Times. There was a 15-plus-minute version of Keep It Together. And there was a beautiful rendition of Skin Thin, during which the cocktail party chatter of the crowd seemed louder than the music, but Harper kept his eyes closed, tuned it out and manifested every somber line. I thought I may have seen a tear fall from his eye, but it could have just been sweat.
During Lay There and Hate Me, Harper asked the girls in the crowd to sing “never trust a man who loves the blues,” instead of the lyric “never trust a woman who loves the blues” (which he had the guys sing too). In Up to You Now, Harper sang a show-stopping a cappella bridge.
Being the sap that I am, one of my favorite parts of the show happened during the second set where Harper appeared solo on stage. Just him, front and center with an acoustic guitar. He played Another Lonely Day, Walk Away, Paris Sunrise #7 and Pleasure and Pain while the crowd sang along, terribly. Harper exuded passionate facial expressions and vocal extensions, sending home the soul of artistry.
Due to my personal attachments, Amen Omen was, hands down, the best song of the night. There aren’t enough words to describe it performed, so I will just use one: quintessential.
To my knowledge, it was Harper’s first time playing in Tampa (he’s played in Clearwater before) and he said it was the last stop on the R7’s tour before performing a series of festivals. It seemed they pulled out all the goods. Just before the last song Harper said that he needed to hire the crowd and that he was pausing to take a wide mental picture of all of us cheering.
The show closed with a killer version of Serve Your Soul. Afterwards, the band gave lots of love to the crowd and Harper said, “You guys have been the best crowd on tour.” He pointed at individual fans, and gave thanks while the other band members handed out token drumsticks, picks and set lists.
Despite the distractions of socialite gabbing, slippery floors littered with cups and a room so humid even Harper had to change his shirt, this was the best Ben Harper show I’ve ever attended and in the most intimate of venues. Let’s hope, with a crowd he adored, it won’t be long before he comes back.
-- Review/photos by Stephanie Bolling, tbt*