"Nothing goes with music quite as good as talking," Ben Harper joked on Thursday at the Orpheum Theatre. The adoring crowd hollered approval for him to chat, but instead he plucked his acoustic lap steel guitar and smiled. "We'll talk later," he said, then conveyed his appreciation through a solo rendition of the sweet love song "Gold to Me."
On this first of two sold-out nights, the Pomona-born singer-songwriter and his quintet the Innocent Criminals showed how musically well-traveled they are and how effortlessly they can flow with Harper's cosmopolitan blend of soul, funk, folk, blues, reggae and rock. The band shifted tempos and styles to keep the two-hour set engaging, songs alternating between thoughtful and celebratory, Harper ruminating on romance as well as social and political concerns.
Harper has many touchstones -- Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Van Morrison and others -- but after eight studio albums he's cemented his own brand of sincere groove poetry and restless soul-man style. His recent "Lifeline" album is monochromatically stark and rootsy, but in concert the band added richer, deeper textures and sounds.
Harper's first number with the group, after opening with a piquant instrumental on his lap steel, had the quintet clustered around one microphone to harmonize and clap while he crooned the condemning gospel blues of "Well Well Well."