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MUSIC REVIEW

Harper’s lengthy set marred only by his fans’ devotion

Ben Harper (seen here earlier this year in Australia) performed for nearly three hours Friday at the House of Blues. Ben Harper (seen here earlier this year in Australia) performed for nearly three hours Friday at the House of Blues. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images/File)
By Marc Hirsh
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2011

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"We’re gonna get real loud, and we’re gonna get real quiet, so thank you for rolling with us.’’ Two songs in, Ben Harper told Friday’s sold-out audience at the House of Blues what he had in store for them. The crowd responded by treating the quiet parts as though they were the loud parts, and plenty of what should have been high points was undermined by the enthusiastic reception that awaited them.

Regardless, Harper was determined to give the crowd as much as possible. The concert lasted two hours and 45 minutes; the hourlong encore alone wasn’t just longer than most opening acts, it was longer than some headliners. And the songs themselves were often expansive opportunities to show off the band’s chops, like the icy gloom of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,’’ which stretched across 20 minutes and at least three solos.

The length of the concert led to some lulls, such as a coffeehouse-soul segment that came at the wrong time, but Harper worked hard to touch on a wide range of styles beyond his baseline of blues-fueled ’70s rock. With elements of Love, late-’60s Who and AC/DC, “Rock N’ Roll Is Free’’ was almost power pop, if only it didn’t seem to burn through the surface at all times. The Staple Singers groove of “Lay There & Hate Me’’ supported some of Harper’s most impassioned singing (as well as lengthy bass and drum solos). And such solo acoustic singer-songwriter fare as “Masterpiece,’’ “Walk Away,’’ and “Lifeline’’ dramatically demonstrated Harper’s vocal resemblance to Cat Stevens.

As evidenced by the constant chatter throughout the latter song, Harper’s fans loved him loudly enough to interfere with some of what he was trying to accomplish. It was never more obvious than on the Sam Cooke soul of “Where Could I Go,’’ where the band dropped almost completely out and Harper sang out microphone-free at one point. The crowd whooped its approval in response, undoing what could have been a heart-stopping moment by failing to pick up on what he was trying to do.

From her a cappella version of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face’’ to the full-band attack on the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,’’ opener Grace Woodroofe sang like a woman possessed and trying to exorcise herself by sheer force of will. The result was captivating, like watching Fiona Apple if she were Jack White.

Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com.

BEN HARPER With Grace Woodroofe

At: House of Blues, Friday