Ben Harper is introducing his fiery new band, Relentless7, with a short tour of small clubs this month, and their second stop was Thursday at Spaceland in Los Angeles, where the four-piece unleashed 90 minutes of thundering rock and blues explosions. There was no "Steal My Kisses" or "Ground On Down" or any other fan favorites from earlier in Harper's career. The clear message was that this was a new band, with its own sound and energy.
The night opened with a tough, howling "Number With No Name," a song from their just-finished debut album, White Lies For Dark Times, set for release in May 2009. Harper sat with his lap-slide guitar and wailed, "For five days straight, I've been breathing fire!"
There was an intense, rumbling Bluesbreakers groove on "Dressed in Black" from drummer Jordan Richardson and bassist Jesse Ingalls, and Harper traded searing bolts of electric guitar with Jason Mozersky on "Lay There and Hate Me," a wild, melodic collision of Rolling Stones and Beatles influences. Harper picked up a Gibson Les Paul and told the capacity crowd, "People say you shouldn't smile when you make rock & roll, but fuck them."
The members of Relentless7 are originally from Austin, Texas, and first recorded with Harper on "Serve Your Soul," a track on his 2006 double-album, Both Sides of the Gun. They reconvened this summer and sessions for the new album were completed in November at the Village Studios in Los Angeles.
At Spaceland, the band's combined force was almost too big for the room. There was a soaring, emotional "Fly One Time" and the brooding 12-string acoustic ballad "Skin Thin." Mozersky brought a modern, echoing guitar edge to "Up to You Now," along with a sly Spaghetti Western vibe, as Harper sang a single, wailing note for what seemed like a full dramatic minute. Late in the set was a joyous cover of the Queen/Bowie 1981 duet "Under Pressure," with Harper taking both vocal parts, as fans sang along to the anxious closing moments.
In the small dressing room backstage soon after, Harper and the band celebrated with friends. Harper's wife Laura Dern gave him a long hug and actor David Arquette passed out fresh tamales just bought from a street vendor. Harper then placed a small "R7" decal on the wall, joining an overlapping collection of band names.
Just prior to the presidential election, Harper and Relentless7 performed several concerts as part of the Get Out and Vote! arena tour with the Beastie Boys and Tenacious D. But Harper is leading this tour through much smaller rock clubs, as if he wasn't already an established artist. "I wanted us to earn it," says Harper of the new band. "This is where it needs to be for it to be sincere."
It was only the second show of the tour, and Harper held up his right thumb to show where the skin was already peeling off. "There's not a moment in this band where it's not turned on," he says. "It's the most natural musical process that I've ever been involved with."
"Number With No Name"
"Shimmer and Shine"
"Lay There and Hate Me"
"Fly One Time"
"Keep It Together"
"Dressed in Black"
"Boots Like These"
"The Word Suicide"
"Up to You Now"
"Serve Your Soul"