Usually, The Mom is the one in the front row hooting, hollering, heckling or shushing the loudmouth who’s talking too much during her baby’s set. Sometimes, she hangs out in the back with some friends, an aunt and uncle or two, your father or her date; others, she’s the one causing the ruckus, shouting out criticisms, encouragement or veiled requests (“WHAT’S THE ONE I LIKE? PLAY THE ONE I LIKE, HONEY!”) who makes friends with the door guy and asks for the opening act’s autograph.
For Ben Harper, that wasn’t his mom at the Rockwood Music Hall last night in New York. His mom was the one who brought forth a voice as steady and sure as the sea her son’s learned to calm within his own, a veritable foil and perfect companion in song to a son who leaves little room for speculation in the ballads he pens. Ellen Harper joined Ben onstage to celebrate the release of Childhood Home, the album they wrote together and are set to tour behind, and the intimate performance was one that conjured the kind of warmth and comfort you can only find at home—and that’s exactly the kind of feeling one would expect from a mother/son duo of this musical caliber.
The ease with which they approached the quick set—a full run-through of the record, 10 songs and a Dylan cover (“Tomorrow Is A Long Time”) thrown in for good measure—was endearing, to say the least, and Ben got a few laughs for joking about how he’d need to watch his cussing and drinking in the coming weeks as the two continue to rediscover Childhood Home on the road. The bulk of the record is a dance, in that Ben and Ellen trade off taking the lead, and their show reflected this: each song was introduced as “one of mine” from both parties, proudly and with their partner in crime sharing an identical, knowing grin or wry chuckle.
The set list banks on nostalgia and sentimentality, and the Harpers were happy to oblige these expectations of the audience: personal anecodtes were plentiful, with details from Ben’s childhood in Claremont, Calif. providing the lifeblood for “City of Dreams” and other songs penned by the duo. Ben may pick up the pedal steel while his mom sticks to guitar, or Ellen may ditch an instrument and let her boy and the band weave a tapestry of chords and syrupy notes before she lets into a verse as thought-provoking as it is easy on the ear. (The fact that they can take on Monsanto—”They own the air we breathe”—while blending dark, blunt truths with approachable folk strains proves the grace of their lyrical balancing act.) The two Harpers share hands, traits and mannerisms onstage, and the songs of Childhood Home benefit from the special shared moments immensely.
Ben and Ellen Harper
Set List, The Rockwood Music Hall – April 21, 2014
A House Is A Home
City of Dreams
Born To Love You
Monsanto: Farmer’s Daughter
Memories of Gold
Altar of Love
Break Your Heart
Learn It All Again Tomorrow
How Could We Not Believe
Tomorrow Is a Long Time (Bob Dylan cover)