Editor’s note: Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals will perform Friday, July 28, at Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort. The show starts at 8 p.m. Below is a review of the band’s 2016 appearance at the High Sierra Music Festival.
QUINCY, CALIFORNIA — In case there was any doubt, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals are back in a big way. Last year’s reunion after a seven-year hiatus and this year’s release of “Call It What It Is” have revitalized the roots/Americana six-piece and the band’s Saturday night set at High Sierra Music Festival’s Grandstand stage serves as colorful, emotive evidence.
Harper was in good spirits from the get-go, bantering with the audience and using his subdued stage presence and demeanor to embody the attitude of the fest as a whole. But while Harper was chill as always, his performance was anything but as he hit on material both new and old and a few extended instrumental explorations.
The band opened with the classic rock-sounding “When Sex Was Dirty” off of its newest release before returning to a couple of old standbys, “Burn To Shine” and his 1999 hit “Steal My Kisses,” featuring a short but groovy bass solo by Juan Nelson that seemed to invigorate Harper.
As percussionist Leon Mobley stepped up to play the djembe intro to Harper’s weed smoking anthem, “Burn One Down,” Harper turned to the crowd and smiled, “Smoke em if ya got em.” The air filled with sweet smelling clouds and the band members traded smiles until the song’s end.
“Ahhhh Northern California!” Harper said, “Home sweet home … you guys feel like family.” And he’s right, High Sierra Music Festival feels like a family, from the way campers and the staff interact with each other to the respect that is shown to the artists. This festival’s success is based on everyone’s ability to hold every aspect of the event in high regard.
Later in the set Harper introduced Nelson as the group jammed its way into a call-and-response between bass and lap-steel and then into a heavy, slinky version of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” with Nelson singing lead. The crowd erupted at Nelson’s soulful vocals, prompting Harper to say “I told you, I’m not even the best singer in this band.”
The Innocent Criminals tore through the rest of the set, closing with an extended version of 1997’s “Faded,” featuring some terrific playing by Harper’s Relentless 7 bandmate, guitarist Jason Mozersky. The group segued into the instrumental “Mutt” and back into “Faded” to close out the set.
“This may be the best festival in America,” Harper said upon returning for his encore. With all the festivals he’s played, he’s probably offered that compliment to an audience before, it still felt genuine and his appreciation of the moment bled through into his performance of “How Dark Is Gone” from “Call It What It Is.”
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals served as the perfect unofficial headliner for High Sierra’s 26th festival, between the members’ fiery performance, laid-back attitude and appreciation of the moment, they represented every facet of what makes this festival so great.
For full coverage of the High Sierra Music Festival, visit the Festival page. LINK