After two weeks of rehearsals in Santa Monica, Ben Harper and his reunited band the Innocent Criminals were ready to share their new 11-song album, Call It What It Is, live on the road. Rolling Stone was there in late March as they ran through each song, including the furiously topical title track, "When Sex Was Dirty," "How Dark Is Gone" and deeply emotional album closer "Goodbye to You."
The tour, which kicked off earlier this month and picks up again in June, will include summer stops at the Hollywood Bowl (accompanied by an orchestra) and Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver.
A year ago, the band – drummer Oliver Charles, percussionist Leon Mobley, bassist Juan Nelson, keyboardist Jason Yates and guitarist Michael Ward – reunited with Harper for a series of shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco. They had been split apart for seven years. Now with a new album's worth of material, Harper says, "It feels more fresh than it does nostalgic."
The title song was initially inspired by a conversation at a skate park about the series of young black men killed in tragic confrontations with police in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. "They were calling it an incident," Harper recalls of each case. "And I said, 'Well, that's not really an incident. That feels like, looks like and smells like murder to me.'"
It's not Harper's first song of protest, which he says was already part of his family's legacy before he was born. "I'm from a family of social activists and cultural awareness," he says. "My grandparents would always be taking in homeless people and constantly giving them room and board and food and money and guidance and direction. I'd be a seven-year-old kid sandwiched between a couple of cats off the street."
The song "Call It What It Is" is raw blues in the tradition of John Lee Hooker, played on Harper's lap-slide guitar, as the lyric begins: "Shot him in the back, now it's a crime to be black/So don't act surprised, when it's vandalized."
Hooker was a friend and mentor to Harper from their first meeting in the early Nineties until the Delta blues legend's death in 2001. They talked often on the phone and occasionally recorded together. Harper remembers one session that was delayed an extra 90 minutes while Hooker watched a Dodgers game in his limo.
"He was so good to me, and I was nobody. But he responded to my knowledge of the blues, from acoustic to electric," says Harper. "For the time he was alive, we had a consistent and constant conversation. We were tight."
Songs on the new album were constructed differently than on past Innocent Criminals recordings. Previously, Harper arrived with songs ready to go, but this time opened things up to a more collaborative songwriting process – much as he had with other recent recording projects.
"Unfortunately, it took the dismantling of the ICs for me to open up creatively, and I was able to start on that path of collaboration with R7, with my mom, with Charlie Musselwhite, with Fistful of Mercy – and it exposed its power to me in a way I'd never recognized," he says. "I think life experience brought me to a place where I was more open to collaborating, and I probably recognized I needed to grow."
At one point during the Santa Monica rehearsals, Harper called for a break and invited the band to join him at his teenage son's track meet at nearby Santa Monica High. They all agreed and watched as the younger Harper competed in several events. (Also cheering him on was his mother and Harper's ex-wife, actress Laura Dern.)
"It felt like something they might enjoy and something we could all do together as an outing," Harper said of the band. "That's how we're trying to operate now, with family first."
The album's closing track, "Goodbye to You," is an emotional ballad of uncertain farewell, as Harper sings: "Passed by where we used to go, where I now go alone/Everything we had to brave, I'm left here to face on my own." The words could be to a lover, a friend, an entire band.
The song was originally followed by two more tracks, but at the first playback party in Los Angeles the day final mixing was completed, Harper got some advice from an unexpected source: comedian Chris Rock, who recognized that the weight of "Goodbye to You" meant nothing could follow.
"He said, 'I don't care what is after that – that's it,'" Harper recalls with a smile. "And sure enough he was right."