Billboard — Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals shaped their new record, “Lifeline,” during several months’ worth of soundchecks and knocked it out during one busy week in a Paris studio. So it couldn’t be less surprising to see that it migrates back to the stage with an assured, groovy ease.
Harper’s tour in support of “Lifeline” has been christened “Acoustic Soul,” part of an overall cozy, sit-down-y theme that looks to extend the record’s straight-to-analog vibe, and with good reason: Harper is perfect with this sort of fuzzy, soulful stuff. His Web site encourages folks to follow the Criminals’ snappy dress code, the show has a gentle, rolling arc to it and the tour’s hitting a number of smaller houses. This comfy Jacksonville room in particular — the site of Elvis’ first indoor concert, according to local lore — has a highly endearing, Gryffindor-common-room vibe that fit the music like a crisp suit.
On stage, Harper always keeps one foot in the new record, which was played nearly in its entirety — this isn’t a show for “Steal My Kisses” or “Burn One Down” or the ambitious sprawl of “Both Sides of the Gun” or “Diamonds on the Inside.” But the name’s also a bit of a head-fake. Though the show is heavy on the warm, Stax-y tracks that make up the bulk of the record, there are moments when the notorious genre-jumper lets his crack band bring the funk, as they say.
A sprawling cover of “Use Me” turned into an extended funk-soul vamp that found Harper howling at the moon while guitarist Michael Ward went nuts all around him. A Florida-ready cover of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” was more straightforward but just as welcome.
Harper’s other set list nuggets nestled into the night’s vibe: “Gold To Me” let him retrofit a little sun-splashed pop, the frothy “Put It on Me” quickly whipped up a bit of jumping ’70s soul and “Gather ‘Round the Stone” served as one of a number of sly gospel detours — not the least of which was the opening, scene-setting “11th Commandment,” performed by Harper alone on stage with his slide guitar.
But by the time Harper closed the show — alone again — he managed to calm the crowd from its noise, dancing and frequent marriage proposals for the pretty instrumental “Paris Sunrise #7” and the new record’s title track, a crying ballad that needed no more than the less-is-more approach Harper gave it. By that time the room was tellingly, absolutely silent, fully in the command of a soul man.
Here is Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals’ set list:
“11th Commandment” > “Well Well Well”
“Excuse Me Mr.”
“Fight Outta You”
“In the Colors”
“Gold To Me”
“Younger Than Today”
“Fool for a Lonesome Train”
“Needed You Tonight”
“Gather ‘Round the Stone”
“Put It on Me”
“Like A King / I’ll Rise”
“Where Could I Go”
“Paris Sunrise #7” > “Lifeline”