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Evanston music lovers were treated to a soulful concert on Saturday evening, August 7, as Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals took to the stage near the first tee at the Canal Shores Golf Course. The opening act was Jake Etheridge and his band. Spokespeople from Out of Space, who produced the concert, and Canal Shores Golf Course confirmed that attendance was somewhere between 2600 to 2700 paid attendees.
The weather cooperated for the benefit of the concertgoers. Rain that had been forecasted held off, temperatures dropped, putting a dent in the oppressive humidity, and a breeze rolled over the crowd as the night sky darkened. The audience seemed relaxed, noshing on a mix of treats from some of Evanston’s best restaurants and snacks they brought from home. Business was also brisk at the food trucks and stands offering beer and wine.
Ben Harper took the stage at 8 p.m. with his five bandmates, and for over 90-minutes played a smorgasbord of hits from various studio albums over the years. An early song in the setlist, “Steal My Kisses,” was from his Burn to Shine album (1999), an ideal choice to get the crowd rocking with an upbeat tempo, great beat and easy lyrics.
Other songs included “In the Colors” from the Lifeline album (2007), “Happy Everafter In Your Eyes” from the Both Sides of the Gun album (2006), “Trust You to Dig My Grave” from the No Mercy In This Land album (2013). “Amen Omen” and “With My Own Two Hands” were both from the Diamonds on the Inside album (2003).
The mellow crowd seemed relaxed and happy to be entertained in a quiet, well-maintained field close to home. All attendees were required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination status in order to gain entry, a requirement that added to the feeling of safety and the chill vibe. Evanston Police had a first-aid station along the walkway where tables were set up for local businesses offering merchandise sales, and a uniformed officer confirmed it was a quiet night without any major disturbances.
The audience was a mix of families, groups of friends, young couples and empty nesters, with a scattering of youngsters and teens. One couple, Amy and Brian Goss, were clearly having a great time. The Ben Harper concert was their second in three days, having enjoyed the Emily Lou Harris/Los Lobos concert on Thursday night, which attracted “an older crowd,” according to Amy. They moved to Evanston within the past year and are having fun exploring the City and trying restaurants, especially as COVID-19 restrictions have eased a bit.
“The concert tonight was outstanding. It’s unbelievable to see these big name groups right here in Evanston,” said Brian.
Ben Harper had a natural rapport with the crowd, thanking concertgoers for attending, commenting on how great it was to be at a concert again, and how delighted he and the band were to be in Evanston. He also spoke poignantly about the recent loss of one of their bandmates, the late Juan Nelson, chief bassist, and a collaborator for nearly 30 years. Nelson passed away on June 9, exactly two months ago, leaving a huge void, Harper said, adding that Nelson was “irreplaceable” because he did so much and played so many roles within the group. On a page about Juan Nelson on Harper’s website, he described Nelson, writing, “there’s no one that can match the versatility, virtuosity, and mastery of Juan Nelson.”
Harper’s span of musicality, mastery of genres and multiple instruments was on full display Saturday night. Even a casual listener unfamiliar with his musical catalogue could discern global influences along with blues, rock, gospel, and folk. Lyrics conveyed a range of raw emotion – personal, romantic, angry, sad, optimistic, and soul-searching. Commenting before one song, Harper said that, in essence, regardless of one’s gender, identity, and sexuality, it’s all fine – these are just words, we are all the same.
When the band left the stage about 90 minutes later, the crowd clapped and cheered appreciatively for several minutes, imploring them to return to the stage, which they did for two songs – one with the full band and one as a solo for Harper, after which Harper thanked the crowd, doffed his hat and walked off.
It was a fitting punctuation mark to a lovely evening.