Pop goes Brendan Benson: Multi-instrumentalist performs in Aspen
ASPEN – Brendan Benson is all over the place. Most famously, the 40-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was a member of the Raconteurs, the high-profile, highly regarded band that featured the White Stripes’ Jack White in the role of Benson’s co-frontman. But Benson’s most recent recording project was a two-song venture credited to Well & Goode, a duo with the Raconteurs’ Mark Watrous. He has an ongoing collaboration with country singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe; Benson says the tie to Monroe is his one connection to the country scene in Nashville, which has been his home for five years. Benson has been employed as producer for various recordings involving members of his extended musical family.And he has a musical identity under his own name. Beginning with the 1996 debut “One Mississippi,” Benson has released four solo albums. Bringing those albums to the stage, he has formed a series of different touring bands: the Well Fed Boys, the Stiff Tissues. For his most recent album, last year’s “My Old, Familiar Friend,” he brought in the Tennessee band the Features to provide backing on several tracks.When Benson performs at Belly Up, on Tuesday, Nov. 30, his band will comprise a new set of musicians: Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, the two principal members of grunge rock band the Posies. (The Posies are co-headliners for the show, as they have been for the entire month-long national tour. Opening the show is Seattle pop band, Aqueduct.) Along with the musical wanderings, Benson has gotten around geographically; his list of addresses reads like a tour itinerary: Bay Area, Los Angeles, Detroit, Nashville.Benson credits this jumping around to an extreme enthusiasm for music-making. “I like to work. I like to play music and keep busy. Given the chance, I’ll play. I’m a whore for music, I guess,” Benson said, his attitude apparently undamaged by a recent cold. (“‘Bus funk,’ we call it,” he said from a tour stop in Washington, D.C.) “And I’ve been lucky, fortunate, to have such talented friends. So it’s not hard to get something going with other people.”Despite the many paths explored, Benson has managed to hold tight to his musical vision. Benson didn’t get infected with jazz , despite his father’s extensive collection of jazz records; he doesn’t do raunchy blues-rock, la White Stripes, despite his association with Jack White. He doesn’t do long guitar solos or inward acoustic meditations.No, Benson is in love with lush, melodic pop-rock. His recordings are packed with keyboards, layered vocal harmonies. They bounce along on punchy drum beats. There is the occasional string section and “la la la” chorus. Listen to “Garbage Day” or the Queen-like “Don’t Want to Talk About It,” from “My Old, Familiar Friend,” and you hear someone un-concerned with the spontaneous and raw.Benson says his upbringing was filled with various kinds of music, from his father’s jazz to the musical theater – “Oliver” and “Annie” are two he mentions by name – that his grandmother turned him onto, and that he still considers influential in his make-up. But when pressed, Benson identifies melodic rock artists, including Donovan and Paul McCartney & Wings, as essential shapers of his musical tastes.And that must include that other, earlier band of McCartney’s, yes? Well, no. When Benson’s first solo album was released, the B-word was thrown all around – which flattered Benson, but also puzzled him. Somehow, he had skipped over a Beatles phase on his way to a career in pop-rock music.”A lot of people said the Beatles, but I didn’t listen to the Beatles much early in life,” he said. “I liked the Rolling Stones. I was convinced that because I had harmonies, I didn’t delve into the Beatles until after I made the first record. Then I started to listen. I said, ‘I don’t hear it, but maybe I should investigate.'”Benson sees, though, a similar approach to music between himself and the Beatles. The Beatles, especially after retiring mid-career from performing concerts, were studio junkies, always looking to see how sounds could be invented and manipulated with studio equipment.”I love recording,” Benson said. “I love being in the studio. I love to experiment.”Interestingly for someone who likes to layer sounds on top of one another, virtually all of Benson’s musical projects have been made the old-fashioned way, with the musicians getting together, face to face. Not until the Well & Goode material did he collaborate at a distance, sending tracks back and forth over the Internet to Watrous.”I had a bunch of stuff, unfinished ideas and songs, that I passed onto him,” Benson said. “I said, If it strikes your fancy, see if you could finish any of these.’ That was fun, interesting. It was the first time I ever worked without having all the musicians in the room together.”The Raconteurs, he said, came together mostly because he and White were in close proximity. Benson, who grew up in both southern Louisiana and Michigan, was living in Detroit several years ago. White, a Detroit resident, was an admirer, and he and Benson did some small-scale collaborating.”We always talked back and forth about doing more, but we could never find the time,” he said. “Finally one day he came over, I was working on a song and he helped me finish it. It went well, so we wrote another one. Next thing you know, we had a record.”With the addition of Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence, both of the Greenhornes, they had a band. And with 2006’s “Broken Boy Soldiers,” they had a hit record, earning two Grammy nominations. Their follow-up, 2008’s “Consolers of the Lonely,” was also nominated for a best rock album Grammy.Benson said the Raconteurs – who played a Belly Up date in mid-2008 – don’t have an apparent future. Instead, Benson is on to his next projects – a new solo record, collaborations with Ashley Monroe, finishing the tour with the Posies, and whatever comes after firstname.lastname@example.org
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