On his final day of rehearsals in Los Angeles, Ben Harper has come prepared to celebrate. He enters the big room where he’s reconvened his band the Innocent Criminals and pulls out a tall bottle of Johnnie Walker. It’s been three weeks of work for the band, relearning nearly 60 songs from their shared history, and their first concerts in over seven years are only days away: four sold-out nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
“It’s been in the works, or at least in my consciousness for a while now,” Harper says of reuniting the Innocent Criminals, who were involved in most of his projects before going on hiatus in 2008. “Enough time had passed to where all roads led back to the Innocent Criminals.”
The whiskey will have to wait, as the band once more dives into two decades of material, encompassing rock, soul, reggae and Harper’s distinctive haunted lap-slide blues. In between songs, band members will discuss set lists and Harper will be on his laptop shopping for a new carpet to use onstage. Later on, he’ll take a few minutes to work on his skateboard kickflips on the concrete floor.
“Some bands waste a lot of time in rehearsal rooms. These guys like to get to work,” says keyboardist Jason Yates. “I prefer it that way.”
“You get back on a bike and you remember how to ride?” says percussionist Leon Mobley with a laugh. “We’re riding.”
Even before these weeks of rehearsals, Harper gathered Yates, Mobley, bassist Juan Nelson, guitarist Michael Ward and drummer Oliver Charles at the Village recording studios across town to begin work on a new album. Harper says it was the best way to start again, creating new songs before looking back. Their last studio album together was 2007’s Lifeline, recorded in Paris.
“I wanted to start the reformation of the band by moving forward with new material,” Harper explains, bearded in a T-shirt and wide-brimmed hat. “There’s something about the urgency and enthusiasm of making a new record that somehow tee-d up rehearsing the older material.”
Ward, the band’s newest member who joined in 2004, says the album’s direction is still evolving. “We’ve already recorded some pretty meaty rock songs, some heart-wrenching ballads and a reggae thing, so the potential direction of the album is still there to veer here and there.”
Harper is an artist who likes to plan ahead, and in recent years he’s checked off some longtime dream projects: among them a Grammy-winning blues record with Charlie Musselwhite, a tender folk record with his mother, and the stripped down rock ‘n’ blues albums recorded with his other band, the Relentless7.
For those projects to live, Harper concluded then, he needed to step away from his own band. “Splitting up the Innocent Criminals was something I had to do for all of our sake, as hard as it is to say,” explains Harper. “I knew in that moment we couldn’t go any further without some serious time to reflect on what we had done and who we were as people and what our friendship meant to each other.”
Yates adds: “I totally got it when I got the phone call that he wanted to work on some other stuff. I didn’t know it was going to take seven years, but I’m glad he went through that process. He kept it sacred.”
Nelson, who has been with Harper almost from the very beginning of his recording career, adds: “We never burnt any bridges or spoke bad about each other after we disbanded, because we all knew we were special band. Maybe we just needed a break from it.”
Every now and then, Harper would meet for dinner with the disbanded Innocent Criminals, and the talk would often include the potential for a reunion. Now that it’s happened, he’s already looking beyond the new album and current 2015 tour of America, Europe and Asia – which last week landed at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee – to other projects with the ICs: an instrumental slide guitar collection and a roots reggae record.
The Fillmore was chosen as the venue for their return in part from its rich history beginning with its founding by legendary promoter Bill Graham, but also from Harper’s own legacy there. Harper first appeared on its stage as the opening act to Ali Farka Toure in 1994, then Spearhead in 1995. His own headlining shows soon followed, as Bay Area fans were among the first to embrace his music in the U.S.
“Every corner of this room has something special about it and a memory for me,” Harper says, sitting in his dressing room, preparing for night 2. “The first night couldn’t have gone better. . . I don’t remember feeling any emotion like that in my life – even my first gigs opening up for John Lee [Hooker]. That was an emotion – if it was familiar in a distant way – I hadn’t felt in a long time. And it felt great to feel it again. It was unnerving and challenging, but it was real.
“Breaking up is hard to do, at the end of the day. But making up? Who knew it could be this sweet?”
At the Fillmore, Mobley says he was always confident the band would get back together, but tears up as he describes their ongoing connection. “I remember the first time I met Ben. We hugged each other. Hugged?” Mobley says with a smile. “I feel what Juan feels. I know what Jason feels. Oliver, Ben, we’re all one. And I think that’s what gives the music what the music has.”