Ben Kweller has always worn his influences on his sleeve. Not that that's a bad thing; he did a good job with the Nirvana formula in his days with Radish. His debut solo album, Sha Sha, was the best Weezer album of the new millennium. I'm no mathematician bio-physicist super computer-maker, but I'd say Sha Sha is at least one million times better than Make Believe. After a stint with the `60s styles of garage rock (On My Way) and bubblegum pop (Ben Kweller), BK has jumped into the bluegrass/country game. Many an indie rocker has succumbed to this hidden passion, most notably Jenny Lewis and BK buddy Conor Oberst.
But while some may groan over this shift for BK's upcoming 2009 album, Changing Horses, the change actually suits Kweller's live show better than one would expect. Kweller came through Philadelphia's Johnny Brenda's Monday, Oct. 20 with Australian folkster Whitley, who entertained the crowd with his husky David Gray-like voice and reverb-laden, Band of Horses / Elliot Smith melancholy. Whitley even pulled out an excellent cover of Björk's "Hyper-Ballad" before finally losing his shit over the loud people at the bar. But up 'til that point, he was funny and evocative; definitely an artist to watch.
Getting back to Kweller, he never touched an electric guitar during his hour-long set. Sticking to piano and a slightly worn acoustic, Ben was excellently backed by "Noodle" Stepro on drums, Chris Morrissey on bass and Kitt Kitterman on steel guitar. It was Kitt's slide stylings that really helped make the set stand out. Morrissey and Kweller played fine, mind you, and Stepro's gleeful drumming infused everything with energy, but Kitterman's soloing is what added color to the arrangements.
The set began with "Wantin' Her Again," an old tune from Kweller's anti-folk, pre-Sha Sha days. Touched up with Carter family harmonies and bluegrass trimmings, the song sounds significantly different from its solo/acoustic origins, but it's still a winning number. I wonder if it'll finally get an album release on Changing Horses? "Wantin'" certainly fit in with that album's material, which dominated the set list. "Fight," "Things I Like to Do" and "Sawdust Man," which are available now on BK's How Ya Lookin' Southbound? Come In… tour EP, got the audience pumped. If nothing else, country music seems really good for a beer-swilling crowd. "Sawdust Man," with its raucous jam session mid-song, went over particularly well.
The songs that got the biggest reaction, though, were the ones fans actually knew the words to. An early double shot of "Family Tree" and "Walk on Me" got people dancing, as did "Falling" and "In Other Words" later in the night. This is perhaps where Kitterman sounded the best; his steel-playing mimicked the violins from the recorded version of "Falling," creating perhaps the most accurate performance of the original song I've ever heard. He did the same thing for "In Other Words," which actually has a steel part. While I still miss the searing guitar solos of "Commerce, TX" and "Harriet's Got a Song," I find myself loving Kitterman's lap steel just as much.
While Kitterman brought a new perspective to the Sha Sha material, the whole band toyed with performances of songs from On My Way and Ben Kweller. While "The Rules," "Sundress" and "Thirteen" sounded roughly the same as their recorded versions, "On My Way," "This Is War" and "Penny on a Train Track" were re-imagined with all sorts of new flourishes, ranging from dramatic stop-starts to full-on jamming. "Penny on a Train Track" was already a pretty catchy number, but the new live version has a passion and purity that's far more transcendent. By the time Kweller hit the line "Pick up that guitar / and play, just play / play that rock and roll for me" near the end, I'd experienced satori about 10 times.
For better and worse, Ben Kweller has always been "my guy," an artist with whom I have always felt linked. From Sha Sha my sophomore year of high school to How Ya Lookin' Southbound? my first autumn out of college, I've had exhilarating highs (that summer spent with On My Way) and crushing lows (the year or so it took me to finally appreciate Ben Kweller) with his music. And while I guarantee Changing Horses is going to alienate more people from his fanbase, I also guarantee the album, and the live shows, will have some astonishing, catchy moments waiting to be found by true believers. As I walked out of Johnny Brenda's upstairs showroom, I knew I had just stood shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of 'em.