Ben Harper Live at The Vic Theatre, 7/1/11

Ben Harper Live at The Vic Theatre, 7/1/11

People can never understand why I go to so many concerts… or so many baseball games.  And what I always try to explain about the live concert setting is that you simply never know what you’re going to see.  Like baseball.

Baseball is the one sport where day in and day out, it always feels like it’s possible to see something incredible.  I don’t go to a basketball game expecting that it’s possible I might see somebody score 100 points.  But with baseball, I watch the hit count constantly in the hopes that maybe today is the day I’ll see a no-hitter (and I have… a no-hitter and a perfect game).  Maybe this is the day I’ll see somebody hit for the cycle.  Maybe today is the day I’ll see a team turn a triple-play.  No matter how remote, there’s always that chance.

Which brings me back to the live concert.

The live concert, like a baseball game, is a chance to see the unbelievable and share that moment with thousands of people.  It’s an incredible feeling.  Sometimes a show is incredibly good (Watching Buddy Guy at the age of 75 strut across the top of the bar at his club Legends belting out a solo during “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues” as if his life depended on it… and feeling like at his age, maybe it did) and sometimes a show is incredibly bad (Watching a disoriented Chuck Berry onstage at the Congress Theatre try futilely at the age of 84 to tune his guitar for twenty minutes before forgetting the words to “Johnny B. Goode” and then passing out at his keyboard).  Either way, it felt pretty incredible to witness both of those moments live in person!

And that’s the beauty of a concert or a baseball game.  You never know what you’ll see.

Photo taken by Jim Ryan

I could go on and on with those types of stories… but it was Ben Harper’s set Friday night at The Vic Theatre that got me thinking about all of this.  Sometimes it’s easy to take all of these moments for granted (especially true this season for anyone who has watched much of the Sox or Cubs).  But sometimes you see something so great that it puts everything in perspective.

Ben Harper’s performance on Friday was nothing short of astonishing and may just be one of the best concerts that I’ve ever seen.

Harper got his set rolling with the hits “Faded,” “Diamonds on the Inside” and “Burn to Shine.”  From there, he launched a triumphant version of his latest single “Rock N’ Roll is Free.”

Photo taken by Jim Ryan

Ben, like the greatest of baseball’s utility players, played well in all of his many musical guises:  together on electric guitar with his tight 5 piece band (Harper with his Relentless 7 bandmates), solo acoustic, solo electric and sitting down to play slide guitar.  His set meandered artfully from full band, to solo acoustic, to frenetic slide guitar with nary a dull moment.  He did this while moving from solo material, to hits, to covers and to untitled new songs he hasn’t even released yet.

Such an adventurous live setlist can often be a real risk to take.  It can be easy to alienate the fickle fan who came only for the hits (think along the lines of the dull, uninterested crowds you see at a baseball playoff game).  But this night at The Vic Theatre saw the all too rare moment where a crowd came together as one, rallying around their hero with a building level of excitement that seemingly never waned.  And Harper rewarded the loyalty with an incredible set that ran over three hours in length.

I asked a beer vendor on my way in to The Vic when Harper’s set was scheduled to end (you see, the vendors always know the answer to this so they can plan accordingly to sell right up until the last second).  The vendor told me 10:35pm.  And then Ben Harper played until midnight.

As he came out for one of several encores (I couldn’t even tell you how many encores he did… because he came back so many times that I eventually lost count) he sat down for a symbolic, solo acoustic rendition of fan favorite “Burn One Down”  that turned into a triumphant sing-along so loud it drowned Ben out altogether.  Harper then picked up the pace again with full band, slide guitar versions of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” and Neil Young’s “Ohio.”

Photo taken by Jim Ryan

Ben Harper is different.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a performer who seemed so passionate about a show so deep into a tour on the second night in the same city.  It’s also been a while since I saw a rockstar who seemed so legitimately humble onstage.  Harper repeatedly thanked the crowd and talked about what a great city Chicago is for him as a performer.  And the thing is that every act says that.  We’ve all heard it and I find myself with my guard up constantly, careful not to buy into it.  But Harper really seemed like he meant it.  Every single person in the theatre bought into it and as the clock approached midnight, not a single person left the venue.  Nobody worried about leaving early to beat traffic or catch a cab.  Harper rewarded them by talking candidly about the qualities he values in his fans and how much those fans mean to him… and it was actually a refreshing concert moment.

At the end of the night, looking at my fellow concertgoers as we left The Vic stunned, all we could do was just look at each other and shake our heads.  Nobody could put into words what we had just seen… but everybody knew that we had just seen SOMETHING.

I couldn’t put into words how I felt at that point either.  But I knew the feeling was a familiar one.  And then it hit me.  It was the same way that I felt on July 23, 2009 as I left U.S. Cellular Field having just witnessed White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle throw only the 18th perfect game in the history of major league baseball.  And that, for everyone who asks me far too often, is why I go to so many concerts and baseball games.  It took Ben Harper to remind of me that.

Photo taken by Jim Ryan


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