Ben Harper can drive a song home, but he’s at his best when he lets his music lift off gently from the stage and float softly down over the audience, enveloping his listeners in subtle words and genuine emotions.
Accompanying himself on guitar, alone onstage, Harper put on a stunning concert Saturday in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center for 3,250 fans, almost filling the hall and most of the lawn behind it.
Many songwriters can range from subtle insights to raw emotion during one show, but Harper does that within a single song.
He opened with a pounding protest song, “Call It What It Is (Murder),” alluding to police shootings from the news headlines, naming Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others who died.
Playing guitar, steel slide guitar and piano, and adding a few electronic tricks, Harper still showed his most powerful instrument is his voice, delivering a tormented near-scream in the middle of “Better Way,” a soulful wail in “Diamonds” and something like a gospel shout in “Excuse Me, Mister.”
At one point, Harper paused to tell the audience, “Making records isn’t easy, but I try to make it look easy. It’s like ice skating. You don’t want to watch people fall down.”
Harper has recorded 10 studio albums since 1994, including last year’s “Get Up!” with harmonica star Charlie Musselwhite of west Sonoma County. His latest album is “Childhood Home,” a collaboration with his mother, Ellen Harper.
Mom got a standing ovation when she walked out onstage to join her son for duets on “City of Dreams” and “Born to Love You,” both from their recent album.
Fans said before the show that they feel a personal connection with Harper’s music.
“I walked to a Ben Harper song at my wedding,” said Tracy Thompkins, 41, of San Francisco.
Kristy Little, 39, of Roseville named “Walk Away” as her favorite Harper tune, and she got to hear him sing it later in the show.
Harper’s delivery onstage was strong, but half the power of his two-hour concert came from his lyrics, like “You can wait your whole life without knowing what you’re waiting for,” from “Don’t Give Up,” and “I’ve seen enough to know that I’ve seen too much,” from “Excuse Me, Mister.”
Near the end of the show, Harper called his mother back to the stage to sing several more songs, including a “House Is a Home” and “Heavy-Hearted World.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or email@example.com.