I love nights like this. Nights when expectations are kept in check before the show commences. Nights when all attempts to force the hype upon you are avoided. When nights like this come to pass you can be rewarded with a completely profound and eye-opening slice of musical magic. Tonight was one of those nights.
Benjamin Booker’s eponymous debut album was released in the summer of 2014 and to be completely honest, I was not totally convinced by this young musician from Virginia. Over several listens I began to appreciate the magnificently soulful vocals, which appear mature beyond his years, but was still to be persuaded by reviews claiming that in Benjamin Booker we had a true rock and roll star in our midst. Nights like tonight therefore prove that the live experience is fundamental when it comes to understanding what kind of musician you have before you. Tonight I hold my hands up and say unequivocally that Benjamin Booker could very well become a that rock and roll icon they talk of.
As he emerges on to the stage, what becomes apparent straight away is Benjamin Booker’s size. On record he sounds immense. This is deceptive though and his frame is slight and the stage along with the Gibson guitar he wields appear to dwarf him. He counts the band in and with an energetic leap into the air, he launches into Have You Seen My Son. This is quickly followed by an equally energetic rendition of Chippewa, which quickly establishes one particular string to his bow. The twenty-five year old prowls the stage, animated and intense. As a guitarist, he possesses a distinctive style of playing, almost slapping the strings, generating a brawny yet rich sound that permeates through the entire evening. So far then, we are rooted in some very familiar rock and roll conventions and this continues with Old Hearts and Kids Never Growing Older. During this time, Benjamin grows in confidence with the crowd. He explains that this is probably one of the biggest shows he has played. The previous night was performed at an incredibly intimate venue in Brighton. Tonight, Academy Two was throbbing and during his quite severe performance at times, he holds the stare of those in the crowd, elevating the intensity of the moment to another level. These rock and roll traditions very quickly evolve with the next track though. Falling Down Blues is a very traditional blues track by an artist called Furry Lewis, dating back almost one hundred years. Performing this song tonight, along with Otis Redding’s Shout Bamalama demonstrates his vocal versatility as well as an awareness of musical tradition, making his performance all the more expressive and rich. Perhaps this is not as surprising when you consider that he was originally studying to become a music journalist at the University of Florida. This guy is not just a pretty face!
As the evening marches on, crowd participation steadily increases. During Little Liza Jane this progressively appreciative audience are encouraged to contribute to the harmonies of the chorus, which most do in energetic fashion. It is therefore sad that some towards the rear of the venue would rather spend their time ignorantly chatting, instead of witnessing the amazing energy and musicianship in front of them. Make no mistake, that was indeed what we were presented with tonight. Benjamin was accompanied by two magnificently talented individuals. Drummer Max Norton was stupendous and his kinetic energy reminded one of ‘The Octopus’, Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction. Fundamental to the whole evening from a percussive point of view, he also provided integral strings in the form of his mandolin during the more traditional songs. On bass was the equally indispensable Alex Spoto who also provided some beautifully rendered violin, helping establish such a diverse evening.
The night ended after a one song encore that the band returned for, after initially leaving the stage accompanied by some pulsing, earsplitting feedback that refused to dissipate. When it did eventually fade we were treated one last time to some rousing Benjamin Booker magic that will live long in the memory. I really love nights like this.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto