Ben Kweller Brings A Taste Of Country To London

Koko; London, England; May 15, 2009

by Jono Russell

benkweller_250Perhaps, way back in 2003 when "supergroup" The Bens -- consisting of Ben Folds, Ben Kweller and Ben Lee -- were touring Australia, they got ridiculously drunk and concocted a few outlandish dares for each to achieve in their solo careers. We didn't have to wait long for Folds' WTF moment - his William Shatner collaboration, a surprising success, followed in 2004. Ben Lee's moment of craziness came this year, with a concept album of sorts about femininity that was cringe-inducingly bad. As for Kweller , his shift was less of a surprise: he embraced the country tinge that has always been present in his music, moved to Nashville and made a record with pedal steel guitar. Plenty of pedal steel guitar. And he’s still well and truly on that country horse, if his gig on Friday at London’s Koko is anything to go by.

Kweller emerged wearing a checkered shirt that seemed a perfect fit for his latest genre and, with little fanfare, launched into one of the most distinctly country tracks from the record. The restrained but pretty "Old Hat" seemed a perfect opener: gone is the rock of old, replaced by a subtle brand of alt-country that is - even for someone who usually loathes the country genre - on the surface, very likeable. It helps that Kweller has always been an engaging stage performer, so even those not familiar (or not a fan of) his new material seemed captivated right from beginning to end.

With the album only three months old, it was always going to be tough to balance the expectations of older fans -- many of whom were perhaps not aware of the genre leap -- and those who were hoping for plenty from the Changing Horses tracklist. It was achieved, though: “Run” appeared third - but was, given the instruments on offer, laced with a strong country flavour that wasn't present in the original. In fact, most of the old material received this treatment - perhaps only the beautiful piano ballad “Thirteen,” a love song written for Ben's wife, was left untouched due to Ben performing it solo.

It was at that point in the night that served as a valuable reminder as to the extent of this man's talents. He seamlessly switched from guitar to piano on a couple of occasions; and even managed to reproduce the harmonica solo in 'Thirteen' while his left hand carried on with chord accompaniment. He did, after all, play every instrument on his self-titled album.

The strongest Kweller song to date, “Falling” (or "that lost Ben Folds number," as it has been accurately called on this site before), provided the strongest moment of crowd interaction. He was content to let a willing Koko audience belt out the "I don't feel like I'm falling" chorus, before taking over for a triumphant finish. Another sing-along moment was found in “On My Way,” a song played due to a crowd request. Performed solo, this was perhaps the moment the Dylan comparisons rang most true (though Kweller's voice, it must be said, is a tad easier on the ear).

Headline acts at Koko on a Friday always start and finish early to allow the venue to transform into a nightclub but, even so, the curfew seemed to come way too quickly. Unsurprisingly, the closing number was the energetic “Penny On The Train Track” - a much rockier track than anything that preceded it. Not many acts can claim to transcend genres (and instruments), especially during one gig, as well as Ben Kweller can. Maybe the breathless claims about him being a boy genius weren't so far off after all.

The question of what is next for Kweller is an intriguing one, but for now it's clear he's a musician at the peak of his powers. Even if his mid-stream switch to the country horse isn't your thing, his live show probably will be.

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