BAALBECK, Lebanon: Performers engage with their audiences differently. Some can spend as much time delivering monologue as they do performing. Others ignore the bums in the seats. Ben Harper, who brought down the curtain on the Baalbeck International Festival Saturday evening, didn’t ignore his audience but he did wait to get a few tunes out of the way before saying, “Good evening, Lebanon.” He didn’t find a reason to say much more until the encore.
Fronting his first band, The Innocent Criminals (BHIC), the singer-songwriter seemed happier dialoguing with his guitars than monologuing at the public. That’s all for the best, of course, if you’re a Harper fan.
Harper’s got plenty of guitars to chat with, too, seldom keeping the same instrument for more than a couple of tunes, and frequently swapping over after each number.
Over the course of Saturday’s gig, he moved among one or two acoustic guitars, something resembling a Gibson electric, and spent most of the evening sitting with a couple of steel lap guitars.
For one tune, guitarist Jason Mozersky shouldered the burden by himself, while Harper helped out with percussion.
This music is hard to put a finger on. Harper’s career emerged from the late-20th-century resurgence of guitar-driven folk music and, like the form’s forerunners, his lyrics tend to be engaged and tinged with activism. His flavor of pop music has a diverse spicing – rooted in the blues and swinging easily into reggae but occasionally tasting of country or rock’n’roll, depending on how he leans on his guitars.
Based on Saturday’s concert, Harper had a loyal cadre in the audience. At least that’s one way of reading the constant stream of audience members who – inspired, perhaps, by the lovely array of indirect lighting that made the temple ruins resemble decor – swayed back and forth from the terraces to the bar below, from the show’s first tune to the last.
Anyway, the Baalbeck gig was Harper’s first in Lebanon and his playlist provided the uninitiated with a generous introduction to his work. The show drew extensively from his 1994 debut “Welcome to the Cruel World” and his 1995 follow up, “Fight for your Mind.”
It also sampled his more recent records, including “White Lies for Dark Times,” 2009, and “Both Sides of the Gun,” 2006.
BHIC satisfied devotees in the crowd with a version of their hit “Steal my Kisses,” from 2001’s “Live From Mars.”
The band ended its main set with the hit “With My Own Two Hands,” from 2003’s “Diamonds on the Inside.”
BHIC’s lively rendition of that tune propelled the audience into a thundering chorus of applause, followed by howls and catcalls demanding more.
When you’re seated higher in the terraces, the energetic stamping that accompanies the clapping, howling and catcalls can get you to thinking about how carefully the bleachers have been erected, especially when the band members don’t run back to the stage immediately. In this case, the builders proved reliable.
When the band didn’t return immediately, a few audience members decided to leave. Others took the opportunity to run down to see if the bar was still open. At one point during the applause a black-clad roadie stepped out from the wings, freezing like a deer in the headlights when the audience, assuming he was as musician, roared a welcome.
Eventually Harper did return to the stage with one of his lap steel guitars, sat, and commenced his encore set with a delicate instrumental solo. A number of tunes in the evening’s playlist seemed to carry on a few bars longer than you’d imagine they might, and Harper’s encore tunes did as well.
The encore continued with a bluesy rendition of his early ballad “Walk Away.” Lyrics exhausted, Harper pulled a few soulful bars from his lap steel to end the tune.
With the notes still reverberating off the ruins, a fan in the not-cheap seats shouted “Burn One Down!” – one of the hits from “Fight for your Mind” – at the stage.
Harper finished “Walk Away” and blinked into the not-cheap seats.
“Man, I know you wanna hear ‘Burn One Down,’ but when you ...,” he sighed. “It’s just a matter of etiquette.”
The BHIC players returned to the stage. A pair of small birthday cakes were lit – one for a Lebanese friend named Guy and the second for a band member.
“I want to thank you for coming,” he told the audience, “for shining a light on the music we make.”
BHIC closed the encore with “Burn One Down.”