Ben Kweller’s school of rock
Ben Kweller hardly seems a crank – quite the opposite, in fact. So when Kweller gets on the case of the state of current rock music, you take it as something more than an agitated rant.”All these Southern California, skate-punk bands, they want to be the next Green Day – but can’t even tune their guitars,” observed Kweller by phone from Holland, Mich., where he happened to be seated at – and admiring – the Steinway grand piano at Hope College’s Knickerbocker Theatre. “Stephen Malkmus, the singer from Pavement, had a line in a song: ‘You gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent.'”I believe that.”
Kweller is doing more than idly believing the words from Malkmus’ “Range Life.” He is living them. On his latest CD, released in September, Kweller played every instrument, and sang every note. Not a huge achievement if you’re making a spare, acoustic record, but the album – titled, of course, “Ben Kweller” – is expansive pop-rock, its layers built from Kweller playing not only guitars and drums, but also xylophone, glockenspiel, organ, percussion and more. Add in Kweller’s taste for melody, and the shifting rhythms and moods of his new album, and “Ben Kweller” becomes an exercise in artistic ambition that Kweller finds lacking in today’s rock scene.”I’m hoping to at least bring back a tradition of American rock ‘n’ roll, in the vein of Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Fogerty,” said Kweller, who makes his Aspen debut Monday, Feb. 12, at Belly Up. “There are more new bands than ever now, and so many ways and means with the Internet for young bands to be heard. But the music listener has to wade through a lot of shit. There are a lot of people who want to pick up a guitar and be a rock star and not learn the history. I have a lot of respect for the history of rock ‘n’ roll.”Kweller may be young to be sermonizing about the history of rock. He is 25, looks even younger than that, and was born just when Springsteen was making his transition from the proto-rocker of “The River” to the haunted folkie of “Nebraska.” He missed Petty’s breakthrough with “Damn the Torpedoes,” and Fogerty’s Creedence Clearwater Revival by a good decade. Not to mention Led Zeppelin, the Doors, The Beatles, etc. But he got a solid education nonetheless. Kweller’s father, Howie, was a drummer who began schooling Ben in the music at the family’s home in the small, northeast Texas town of Emory. Kweller added a variety of instruments to his arsenal, and by the age of 15 he was ready to leave school – real school, the kind where they take attendance – and get on the road. It was a good time for Kweller’s punkish band, Radish; record labels were hunting for edgy rock groups to follow in the footsteps of Nirvana and the like. But despite a nice boost from the hype machine, Radish failed to hit big, and Kweller disbanded Radish and moved to Brooklyn, where he still lives.”I was lucky to get a lot out of my system,” said Kweller, who became a first-time father in the middle of 2006. “I feel like I’ve lived a few lives, and I’m only 25. By 19, when I moved to New York, I had worked with countless producers, made three albums, toured the world.”I knew what kind of artist I wanted to be, the good things of the music business to keep close to me, the bad things to keep away from. A lot of bands don’t get a chance to foul up,” continued Kweller, using significantly more colorful language to describe the process, “and then get a second time around.”
Kweller’s second tour through the rock world has been more fruitful. His first solo CD, “Freak Out It’s … Ben Kweller” caught the attention of Evan Dando, lead singer of the Lemonheads; Kweller said Dando’s warm approval was a significant morale booster. Kweller signed to ATO, Dave Matthews’ label, for 2002’s “Sha Sha,” which earned a solid following, largely among the college crowd. “On My Way,” from 2004, solidified his credentials as a smart, adventurous songwriter and recording artist.Growing upWhen Kweller says he knew what kind of artist he wanted to be, that self-definition didn’t include being the sort of musician who locks himself alone in a recording studio with a bunch of instruments and emerges months later with an album. For “On My Way,” Kweller and his three bandmates had played essentially as a live band, with no headphones, few overdubs. The reviews, overwhelmingly positive, didn’t mandate a change in approach, and Kweller didn’t anticipate one.Gil Norton, who produced “Ben Kweller,” envisioned one. “He said the songs are so personal, if you play all the instruments on every track, it’ll have your fingerprints all over it,” said Kweller. “It’ll be completely true.”Kweller instantly saw the wisdom in it. In the decade since he formed Radish, Kweller’s music had become not only more folk- and pop-flavored, but also far more direct and personal. Surrounded by instruments rather than living, breathing, judging musicians, he was at ease to expose himself. Particularly on “Thirteen,” an intimate account of a romantic relationship, set only to simple piano and a bit of harmonica, Kweller believes the solitary studio existence was ideal.”I know there were a lot of performances I couldn’t have done with a lot of people around,” he said. Kweller says the studio was “like a jungle gym of instruments,” but those instruments were not particularly daunting; he had already mastered most of them. “And I wasn’t busting out the violin,” he said.
Kweller’s first reaction to Norton’s proposal – that longtime bassist, Josh Lattanzi, would be cut out of the picture – was dismissed when Norton assured him there would be many recording projects down the road. After that, Kweller embraced the sense of loneliness.”I liked that I could follow my own heart and direction, with no other cooks in the kitchen,” he said. “It was liberating and reclusive.”Kweller says he is unlikely to work in that manner again. But one direction he doesn’t see abandoning is the one that leads to more lyrical honesty. The younger Kweller wanted so much to please – more than one reviewer observed his need to be liked – that he put rose-colored glasses over his songs.”On ‘Sha Sha,’ I was 17, and didn’t want to spill my guts as much,” he said. “I sugarcoated lyrics, didn’t talk about the dark side of love so much. The new stuff is more salty-sweet. We’re all getting older, learning more.”
It is a strange thing, this quartet Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. A jazz-fusion band led by a banjoist, a picker who, at least in this quartet, sounds influenced by Charlie Parker, Pat Metheny, Bach – anything but bluegrass. An array of instruments all, at one time or another, plugged through enough gadgets that they sound like something else entirely. A “drummer” who plays a synthax drumitar, and goes by the name Future Man. The Flecktones play in time signatures that make toe-tapping impossible. The technical proficiency and group dynamics are on a level that makes you think they descended from a more advanced universe.But possibly the strangest thing is, for all that, how accessible the music is. At the first of two shows Thursday night at Belly Up, this complex sound was remarkably easy to dance to. The age range was perhaps the widest ever seen at Belly Up – from the 60-somethings grateful for the 7 p.m. start, to the third-grader standing on a stool most of the night to get a better glimpse of the stage. Despite the virtuosity and the complexity, the Flecktones never aim over the heads of the audience. Strange to say, but there is an almost simple groove to the music, or one easy to latch onto, that makes the Flecktones as much a joy as a wonder.The early show offered several touchstones for even those who might otherwise have been bewildered. Bassist Victor Lemont Wooten played a gentle solo version of “Amazing Grace” that combined harmonics and counterpoint as well as the melody, before switching gears to turn the gospel tune into a funkfest. A rocklike jam, with Fleck on a Rickenbacker banjo that sounded for all the world like a Gibson electric guitar, segued into an instrumental take on The Beatles’ “Come Together,” with saxophonist Jeff Coffin playing the melody. The most stripped-down part of the show was also the most technically impressive. Fleck played an interlude on solo, acoustic banjo that moved through classical music and classic bluegrass – a revved-up version of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (the theme to “The Beverly Hillbillies”). At certain points, Fleck himself gave a humble shrug, as if to say that he was as amazed as anyone by his feat.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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Determining where the fish are in the river can be a challenge in itself, but during runoff the predictability factor tilts in your favor.