It took seven years for Ben Harper to reunite with the Innocent Criminals, and he says in making “Call It What It Is,” his new album with his longtime band, there was a fundamental change in the dynamic.
More than ever, billing “Call It What It Is” as a Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals album was a real reflection of the way the music was made.
“They’re all credited as songwriters on all of the songs, or on a good number of them anyway,” Harper explained in a recent phone interview. “Even if it’s one I wrote, they have a piece of the songs because they played on it. You would think producing as a collective would be its own challenge with too many cooks, but it turned out to be just right because not only was I bringing that same communal sense of community, but they were also. They were ready to, if you want to change something, be open to it being changed. It was a great collective, certain guys would step up and take charge on certain songs, and we’d let them. Then at other times, other guys would step up on other songs where they had their strengths.”
That sort of open collaboration wasn’t always the case when Harper worked with his group during the first decade-plus of his recording career.
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“I think that was maybe part of the reason that we split in the first place. Maybe I was too hands on,” Harper said. “I think you could point to me being controlling in the process of not only producing the music, but how the shows came to life as well. There was a certain strength in the surrendering, or a certain growth, I should say, in the surrendering aspect of all of it. And I think it was part of the process in the separation, learning the power in letting other people take the lead, whether it’s in music or in life in general.”
Harper’s first run with the Innocent Criminals ended after touring to promote 2007’s “Lifeline.” From there, he went on to explore several distinctly different musical avenues, with a pair of projects that involved full-on collaborations.
First, he put together a new four-piece band, the Relentless7, which took Harper’s music in a leaner, more rocking direction on the albums “White Lies for Dark Times” (2009) and “Give Till It’s Gone” (2011). Both albums included several co-writes with guitarist Jason Mozersky.
Then Harper paired up with blues veteran Charlie Musselwhite to create the stripped back bluesy 2013 album “Get Up!” It won the pair a 2014 Grammy for Best Blues Album.
Harper said he took a back seat on the project to Musselwhite, who has made 30 albums in his career and is recognized as one of the best harmonica players going.
“I came in all well knowing that Charlie is Batman and I’m Robin,” Harper said. “Steve Cropper, I was at the White House ... like I’ll casually drop that ... I was at the White House and Charlie and I were doing a celebration of Memphis soul. Steve Cropper (the legendary guitarist and songwriter from Booker T. & the MGs) was in the house band Booker T., and when there was sort of a technical break, Steve Cropper, he cornered me. He like got me in a corner and he pointed right into my chest, he said ‘Hey, you know what a special guy you’re working with, do you know how lucky you are?’ And I just went ‘Yes, sir.’ And he goes ‘Good,’ and then he walked away. Enough said.”
From there, Harper made good on another collaborative project that had been on his to-do list since he broke onto the national scene with his 1994 debut album, “Welcome to the Cruel World” — making the largely acoustic, folk-leaning 2014 album, “Childhood Home,” with his mother, singer-songwriter Ellen Harper.
“I’m from a family of musicians,” Harper said. So the second I got a little traction, I said ‘Hey Mom, let’s do something that’s family based.’ We just kept that alive and kept talking. The only reason we didn’t (do “Childhood Home’ sooner) was because I was off to the races (with the career) in such a way that time didn’t open up until the time it opened up. You write half and I’ll write half and we’ll get it done.”
With those projects finished, Harper and the Innocent Criminals—guitarist Michael Ward, keyboardist Jason Yates, bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles and percussionist Leon Mobley—reconvened, making the reunion public with four concerts at the Fillmore in San Francisco in June 2015.
By that time, though, the group was already at work on “Call It What It Is,” putting to work the more collaborative attitude and the musical growth Harper and his bandmates had gained in the time apart. Harper said he wanted to start the album before playing live with the Innocent Criminals to create a forward-looking attitude around the project.
“It felt so incredibly regenerative, not that I was ungenerative (before),” Harper said. “It was truly a culmination of the growth of six individuals, and not the stagnation, and that is what has made all things Innocent Criminals possible and provided so much open road for this band.”
“Call It What It Is” is another musically rich, lyrically thoughtful, and at times provocative, effort from Harper. It covers a wide range of styles and intensities usually sitting somewhere between rock, blues and soul. There’s big rock in “Pink Balloon” and “When Sex Was Dirty.” There’s a ghostly near solo tune, “All That Has Grown,” and reggae with the song, “Finding Our Way.” “Deeper and Deeper” is an edgy, largely acoustic tune, while the organ-laced “Shine” is funky and earthy. The title track gets bluesy as it looks at the complex issue of police and people of color, while the percussive, Latin-tinged “How Dark Is Gone” is another emotionally charged track.
Harper said fans can expect to hear some new songs in his show, but the set could touch on pretty much any phase of his career.
“We’re going to lean heavily on the catalog, and we’re going to also bring to life the new record,” Harper said. “I think we’ll dip into some in between stuff as well. We’ll do some Charlie Musselwhite stuff, we’ll get into some of the Blind Boys material, maybe even some of the Relentless7 material, have a couple, a few songs ready at a moment’s notice.”
With “Call It What It Is” complete and a tour under way, Harper now says he expects to work primarily with the Innocent Criminals for the foreseeable future. There will be the occasional side project (Harper confirmed that he and Musselwhite are working on a follow-up to the “Get Up!” album that he thinks will surpass their first album.) But the priority will be projects with the Innocent Criminals.
“Now I have a penchant for being a workaholic,” Harper said, “so when we do take a couple of months off, yeah, I’ll explore and expand, but in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the Innocent Criminals. That’s going to be my motivation right there.”
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 30, Revolution Center, 4983 Glenwood St., Garden City. $47.50 general, $77.50 VIP. Ticketfly.