Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Live Review:Ben Kweller (with The Watson Twins and Jones St. Station) – 2/25/09 – The Town Hall, NYC

 She Hate Me loves Ben Kweller and dancing three year old little Kwellers, apparently:

I’ve always kind of thought that Mr. Kweller was something of an underrated musician and songwriter and that seemed to be confirmed last night by his immensely enjoyable homecoming show at New York ’s Town Hall.  He was clearly humbled and excited to be there (as evidenced by his ill red smoking jacket and the disgustingly great crust-ache he grew for the occasion) and it showed as he pulled an Elvis Costello and ripped through 19 songs in less than an hour and half. It was not only very refreshing to see him finish a song and go right into the next one, but it also kept him in step with the countrified vibe that he brought as part of his solid new album, Changing Horses.  

He played a great set of songs -- all the hits and basically the entire new album, and, as usual, his entire backing band was stellar (despite the fact that his slide guitar player looks eerily similar to Matt Damon’s character in The Good Shepherd).  It was impossible not to like any song he played, and the country theme extended even into some of the older stuff.  He never even bothered to pick up an electric guitar, so the show lacked the overall RAWK of "Commerce, TX" or “Wasted and Ready” or some of those blues guitar freak-outs he had at Webster Hall when we saw him with Gomez in 2006. 

I think what makes Kweller so enjoyable is his knack for being earnest and sentimental without being overly dramatic.  There’s a strong sincerity behind his songs that really translates well live, and he understands that there is no need to over-emote to give them some punch.  Instead of screaming or whining or agonizing, there’s this lilting sense of youthful nostalgia and optimism in his voice.  He’s adopted a bit of the Gram Parsons sound these days, but my man is clearly not down with the “love hurts” crowd, and his songs are endearing because of that fact – they are peppy and introspective at the same time (and maybe even borderline sappy), but they always work perfectly and they never don’t deliver a good pop hook.

This was evident throughout the night, but no more so than during the closing number “Penny on a Train Track”.  As the song kicked in you could see a little three year old boy dancing backstage, and as the song went on, the kid began jumping up and down behind the band.  In between lyrics, Kweller said “that’s my boy” and it clearly was a cool moment for him – kind of like the apex of his return back to the place he had lived for 10 years, and as the crowd seemed to sense this, people started spontaneously rushing up the aisles towards the stage.  For first time in the evening, everyone stood up and was dancing, smiling and cheering wildly.  

The last time I saw something like this was at a Ryan Adams show at The Beacon about 5 years ago.  He closed with “Come Pick Me Upand there was a spontaneous bum-rush to the stage and by the end of the song, Sad Sack Ryan was playing harmonica with 30 people surrounding him.  The moment was cool because it was genuine, but it was slightly ruined by the fact that everyone was taking camera phone pictures on stage.  A similar spontaneity took place with “Penny” but, as with all things Kweller, there was an undercurrent of sentimental innocence that made it so cool, even touching.  Instead of frat boys taking pictures of themselves, the crowd was reacting to Kweller’s three year old boy’s hilarious dance moves.  

Kweller has a great knack for stripping away the nonsense and keeping things relatively simple, upbeat and optimistic.  That soft lilt in his voice (not dissimilar to that of Jeff Tweedy or Jerry Garcia) works so well because it exudes a lack of pretension and a lack of cynicism.  “Penny” embodied all of these things and it was just as energetic and organically enjoyable as the entire set of songs he played.  The Williamsburg crowd’s jaded cynicism sometimes overtakes some these New York shows, but Kweller is clearly apart from that whole scene and he’s all the better for it.  As we walked out of the theatre, we couldn’t help but smile and feel as though Kweller’s show so aptly delivered in all the same ways that make his music so satisfying to begin with.


Walk on Me


Family Tree

Things I Like To Do

Wantin’ Her Again

Old Hat

Gypsy Rose

On My Way



Sawdust Man

Homeward Bound

Hurtin’ You (with Watson Twins)


The Rules






Penny on a Train Track


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