There’s always been something mildly melancholic and definitively downbeat about Brendan Benson. Could be his mournful-yet-cosily genial vocal timbre cradled by self-pitying tales of bitchy girls and under-achievement, or maybe it’s the fact that his knack for a knock-out power pop tune has been entirely undermined by his association with one of the most charismatic rock stars of the past decade. What’s more than evident is that his live show does nothing to knock this air on the head.
Benson does cut a slight figure, marked out only by his worryingly Robert Plant-esque barnet, but the honeyed, warm vocals are there as plain as ever as he starts up with ‘Folk Singer’. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to compare his solo show to The Raconteurs’ work. On one hand we have the jobbing troubadour, reliable as always, knocking out pitch perfect, if not slightly too perfect, versions of his rock steady songs of love. On the other we have the warped gothic-Zeppelin weirdness of what he does alongside Mr. White. It’s hard not to be a tad underwhelmed at times.
Starters ‘Good To Me’, ‘Eyes on the Horizon’ and ‘Sittin’ Pretty’ are all rock solid and workmanlike. Indeed, it’s a no-nonsense set that offers no surprises, just reliable versions of Benson’s impressive back catalogue. There’s a swell when the crowd recognise ‘Spit It Out’ and ‘Alternative to Love’. ‘Metarie’ is as enjoyably self-pitying as ever, and, last song pre-encore, ‘Tiny Spark’ is soaringly jovial. It’s the newer stuff that doesn’t quite grab the imagination, and the aptly-named ‘Gonowhere’ and not-as-soulful-as-it-thinks-it-is ‘Garbage Day’ plod along somewhere in the middle of proceedings.
The covers Benson happens upon in the encore are perhaps more revealing about him as an artist; a life-affirming version of ‘Better Days’ by Graham Nash and a somewhat cheeky cover of ‘Sucked Out’ by mid-90’s college rock stalwarts Superdrag (“go look up Superdrag on iTunes”, orders Benson to the mostly unacquainted crowd). The claustrophobic ‘Feel Like Taking You Home’ is an odd choice to wraps things up on, and reminds us exactly why Benson may always, sadly, live in the shadows of the real showmen. Much like a moth-eaten, much loved cardigan compared with a zoot suit, Benson’s comfortingly mellow stage presence might not stir up the fires, but it shows where the real heart of his better-known supergroup lies. Even if the excitement lies elsewhere.
Photos by Sean Conroy