All photos: Joshua Feldman
In the lingo-filled universe of music criticism, “singer-songwriter” is a lazy term, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to Ben Kweller. His songs touch on piano pop whimsy, Weezer-esque power pop, classic rock guitar noodling and the earnest storytelling traditions of country and folk. At the 9:30 Club Friday night, Kweller gave fans a little bit of everything. Actually, I take it back – a LOT of everything. For two hours, he seemingly went through half of the songs in his five-album discography, proving his staying power over the years with a diverse array of singalongs. It was a dense evening, but I think the crowd and Kweller would’ve stuck around for another two hours given the opportunity.
Kweller was alone on stage, but he had more than enough energy and charisma to carry the set by himself. He played the hell out of his guitars, distorted solos and all, and his piano-based songs had much more personality when stripped of their studio instrumentation. Kweller’s voice also holds up remarkably well in concert. He was pitch-perfect throughout the set, and I don’t think I saw him take a single water break on stage. Maybe I’m an old man trapped in a college kid’s body, but I also appreciated the fact that I could clearly decipher his vocals in the mix. After enduring the muddiness of Virgin FreeFest a couple of weeks ago, this was a welcome change.
Early on in the set, Kweller was unhappy with the sound of his guitar, so he took a few minutes to figure out the problem, which ended up being a low battery in his delay pedal. He said he didn’t want the set to be “phoned in,” and he damn well meant it. This was a show for the fans, and Kweller was genuinely appreciative of the crowd. In a gorgeously photogenic moment, he invited people onstage to sit in a campfire circle and shake their keys during “Until I Die.” He took requests from Twitter and screaming girls, playing songs from all of his albums, as well as deeper cuts and wonderful covers of The Lemonheads and “Ice, Ice Baby.” Kweller appeared to play everyone’s favorite song of his, with each person in the audience having a different favorite.
And the mass singalongs were plenty big. The bouncy “Falling” was an early highlight, and momentum only grew from there. By the time he got to initial closer “Wasted and Ready,” it was clear that all parties involved were enjoying themselves. He finished things off with an encore including the country romp “Fight” (featuring members of the amiably folky opener Junior League Band) and a spirited rendition of “Penny On The Train Track.”
There are artists that I can only tolerate live for 30 minutes at a time, but I found myself being increasingly won over as Kweller’s set progressed. The way he went beyond his set list to honor each and every request was workmanlike in the best way possible. And the denim vest he sported brought to mind a certain workmanlike musician named Bruce. Like this Bruce guy, Kweller is a man of the people and for the people, a showman with infinite charm. His tunes aren’t half bad either. Lumping him in with the rest of the singer-songwriters simply doesn’t cut it.
- Junior League: