September 4, 2007

The Palace wrangles Criminals, Killers and John Prine

Ben Harper: Photo by Scott Soens Ben Harper and the Innocent CriminalsMonday, Sept. 10“You definitely found an eccentric cat for your interview,” Ben Harper says when LEO finally gets him on the phone. At the moment, Harper is holed up on Jay Leno’s set waiting to tape his appearance on the “Tonight Show” with his long-time partners in crime, the Innocent Criminals. Harper is, characteristically, in good spirits. One can only imagine that his band is flying high as well. Earlier in the day, the Innocent Criminals saw the release of Lifeline, their first full collaboration with Harper. Granted, the Criminals have participated in most of Harper’s assorted projects dating back to 1992. But this time was different since band members were actually invited to participate in the writing as well as recording of the new tunes.“It was slightly painful in that I had never done it,” Harper admits. “I’m someone who had been isolated and introverted in the writing process for seven, eight records up to that point. It was a huge shift for me creatively … but I just knew there was something special that I wanted to capture as a true collective effort.”Interestingly, the pre-production sessions for Lifeline took the place of traditional soundchecks during Harper’s last European tour, and the tracks that had accumulated were then finished-off in a Paris studio. Like many artists before him, Harper was invigorated by the creative energy of France. “We were free to make music at a different pace, at a different rhythm in Paris. It felt great to walk to the studio and not have to pass about 60 strip malls or sit in traffic for an hour. You know, we are what we see … we are what we ingest on a day-to-day basis,” Harper says.Lifeline clearly absorbed that Parisian serenity. Though still politically astute and socially conscious, he opted this time for a more soulful and less visceral approach to disseminating his message, or lack thereof.As Harper puts it, “It’s never about messages for me. My music isn’t political. I’m just serving creative sincerity and emotion.”When prodded, though, Harper acknowledges he does not approve of Bush or his war. “I’m not one of these blind faith type of guys … you know, no war for no war sake. There were wars that have had to be fought. There may be other wars that have to be fought. This ain’t one of them, so bring the troops home!” Harper does not want to bring himself home anytime soon. After the show with Leno, the Innocent Criminals embark on a tour that will connect them with considerably smaller audiences.“I wanted to bring this specific record into the world in as intimate a setting as possible. There’s not one word or one note that’s a throwaway, and I didn’t want anything to get lost,” Harper says.Ben Harper plays the Palace Theatre (625 S. Fourth St., 583-4555) Monday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $37.Tuesday, Sept. 11Though still based in the bizarro world of Las Vegas, The Killers are a well-traveled band. And their roving has only intensified since achieving massive success with their breakout LP Hot Fuss in 2004.“We don’t come from rich families. We’ve had to work hard for everything in life,” drummer Ronnie Vannucci says from backstage in Belfast, speaking of the band’s grueling schedule. “To actually make a living doing this is a great opportunity that has fallen into our lap, and we don’t take it for granted.”The Killers’ gratitude pushes them, not only to tour relentlessly, but also to live the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle with a certain mindfulness that most stars never attain. “Obviously, we want to be able to do this for a long time,” Vannucci says. “To drink our success away or have it go up our nostrils would be stupid. We haven’t been around too long, but we’ve seen enough bad examples to know what we do not want to become.”An impressive and rather well received sophomore release, Sam’s Town, is further indication that The Killers are in for the long haul.Vannucci admits they wanted to expand their parameters a bit on their second album, but that The Killers had no preconception of where the project would ultimately go.“With the recording process, lots of variables are involved. And in our minds there is always room for experimentation. Sometimes we will deliberately fuck with songs to make them go somewhere other than where they were heading naturally,” he says.In any event, the resulting sessions were decidedly nostalgic in tone. Like Hot Fuss, the latest Killers record also offers a backward half-look over their shoulders. However, this time their gaze is not so focused on Robert Smith or Johnny Marr but rather on the old Vegas that is rapidly disappearing before their eyes. In fact, the album’s title is a reference to an old-school casino on the outskirts of the city.“Las Vegas is definitely a different animal now, especially in terms of the music scene,” Vannucci says. “When I was a kid, you could still encounter all these old cats … really jaded dudes who had kind of settled down in the lounges along the strip.“It was there that my grandma first introduced me to jazz and big band sounds. As an 11-year-old raised on rock music, it took me a while to process everything that was going on. But to this day, it is players like Buddy Rich who have influenced me the most as a drummer.”Truth be told, Sam’s Town is as much a meditation on The Killers’ own loss of youth as it is a tribute to any bygone era of Vegas.“This album isn’t intentionally nostalgic,” Vannucci says, “but that’s sort of what came out. There is a certain honesty throughout Sam’s Town. Not to get all deep or anything, but it is a combination of us growing up personally and at the same time maturing musically and lyrically as a band.”The Killers’ non-stop roaming leads them to the Palace on Tuesday for an all-ages show. Things get started at 7:30 p.m., and tix are $37. Saturday, Sept. 8Legendary singer-songwriter John Prine is no stranger to the River City, but he hasn’t been here in a while. That changes this weekend. Nearly 40 years ago, Prine was a Chicago mailman learning guitar chords from his brother. He burst onto the national scene in 1971 — with a big push from Kris Kristofferson — and quickly evolved into serious social satirist/critic and poet. His best tunes look at events through the gritty lens of everyday folks and events and blend comedy and tragedy, love and loss, the sacred and profane. He’s been covered by nearly everyone under the sun, but there is nothing quite like his own quirky original treatments.He was first known primarily as a folk artist, but Prine (a cancer survivor) has dabbled in rockabilly, blues, country, bluegrass and many combinations thereof. His latest album for his own Oh Boy! Label is a tasteful collaboration with Mac Wiseman. For his next act, Prine is said to be assembling a gospel record to be titled Religious Songs To Drink By.John Prine plays the Palace Saturday at 8 p.m. Tix are $42.50-$52.50 and going fast. The audience will be full of his Kentucky kin, and we have a request: Save your chatter (at least during his quiet songs) for after the show! Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com