Ben Harper & Relentless 7 – Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival

Ben Harper’s career has been marked by three distinct features – near-perfect songwriting, scintillating musicianship and overbearing self-indulgence. This new release features all three, as Harper and his new band, Relentless7, close the Montreal Jazz Festival on the occasion of its 30th birthday.

It’s a great show, although with only fifteen songs lasting close to 90 minutes it does get a little bit tedious. Extended solos and full-band jam sessions are almost always more fun live than sitting at home, on your couch, with a cup of tea. That said, the band can really play. They never drop the intensity, and tear through the material from the most recent studio album with tremendous enthusiasm.

Number With No Name and Shimmer and Shine are really excellent, if at times affected by the ‘too many solos’ curse. But they were two of the best cuts on the album, and remain standout here. Lay There and Hate Me comes next, and it’s still the weakest link. I don’t really know what Harper is trying to say with lines like “never trust a woman who loves the blues”, but it’s a dumb line. And the song falls very short in its attempts to capture the slinky groove of The Rolling Stones’ Miss You. All is forgiven, though, when the band digs in to Jimi Hendrix’s Red House.

After 45 minutes of electric savagery, it is somewhat of a revelation when the band turns its attentions to the softer stuff. Skin Thin and Fly One Time are both played with great tenderness and alacrity, with Harper displaying that same sensitivity that won him so many fans on his first couple of albums Welcome To The Cruel World and Fight For Your Mind.

The soft stuff dispensed with, the band starts up Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart) – and it is clearly planned as the evening’s centrepiece. It begins at full tilt, with the wah-wah pedals getting a thorough workout. Harper himself is in fine voice, soaring high before ripping right back down to a bluesy growl. And again the solos start, but this time it feels organic, innate and purposeful, rather than the de rigeur procedures earlier in the set. And so the solos build, and build on each other, until finally it all comes crashing back with this astonishing energy. It’s the perfect way to end the main set, and really could have finished the whole show without it suffering one bit.

The encores are perfectly serviceable, apart from the horror of Under Pressure, where Harper tries to sing both Freddie Mercury’s AND David Bowie’s parts at the same. Ultimately, there is a limit on how many parts of a duet you can sing by yourself at the same time. And even when you are as good as Ben Harper, that limit is one.

All told, it’s a really good show. But music DVDs are tricky like that – it doesn’t really matter how good it is, it will usually only appeal to the fans. I had a great time on my couch, even if it did go on for a while, but if I was trying to introduce someone to Ben Harper I would start with the studio albums.