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Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals’ run the musical gamut

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Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals staged their triumphant return to Austin City Limits supporting the brand new album Call It What It Is. Thirteen years after their first appearance in Season 29 (and seven since Harper’s last visits in Season 35 with Relentless7 and as a guest of Pearl Jam),  Harper and the six piece Criminals showcased the new LP with a diverse performance.

The band opened with the rocking “When Sex Was Dirty,” a sardonically nostalgic look back at a more repressive time. The Les Paul-wielding Harper then jumped back to the Criminals classic Burn to Shine for the blues-rocking title track. The group stuck with the same album as percussionist Leon Mobley brought out a cajon for the percolating groove of “Steal My Kisses,” augmented by crowd clapping and bassist Juan Nelson’s baritone asides. Harper took a moment to thank ACL – “it’s the most incredible music institution I know” – before moving into “Finding Our Way,” a tribute to music in a reggae style from the new album.

Settling onto a chair with his lap steel, the instrument for which he’s best known, Harper then launched into the soulful, upbeat “Shine,” adding some liquid solos. He introduced the band, including Austin’s own Jason Mozersky on guitar, before moving into the slow burning “Call It What It Is,” an explicitly political kick against the darkness. Strapping on an acoustic guitar, Harper brought on violinist Rebecca Schlappich and guitarist Kyle Crusham for a brand new, unrecorded song: the honky-tonkin’ “Bottle Wins Again.” Another reconfiguration found drummer Oliver Charles coming from behind his kit to man a set of congas, keyboardist Jason Yates on acoustic guitar and Harper himself shaking a maraca for the Latin-styled “How Dark is Gone,” enlivened an organ/guitar duel by Yates and Mozersky that drove the crowd wild.

Harper then went all the way back to There Will Be a Light, his 2004 collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama. Mining deep soul and gospel roots, he pulled out all the vocal stops for “Where Could I Go,” even singing part of it off- mic with little loss of power or passion. It was a show-stopping moment, and the audience loved it. Harper strapped a Telecaster on for the set-ending “Goodbye to You,” the gently melancholic closer of Call It What It Is. But the band didn’t leave it like that, returning for the title track of Harper’s 1995 second album. The funky “Fight For Your Mind” blended its defiant stance with an excerpt of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” and extended call-and-response solos from Nelson’s bass and Harper’s lap steel. “It really is the greatest stage in the world,” Harper said as the crowd applauded wildly. It was a fitting closer for a show that ran the gamut of Harper’s musical expression, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this coming winter on your local PBS station.