In the middle of his song "Spit It Out," Brendan Benson declared "for every bubble you blow, I'm gonna pop it." The line offered a pretty good insight into the singer-songwriter's methods. For all his unstoppable power-pop moves and clear-eyed, harmony-enhanced bubblegum tunes, a bittersweet current runs through his best work. Songs of busted love and romantic indecision get dipped in a chocolate so sweet that it's easy to miss the pathos: His songs are catchy but rarely fluffy. Last night's show at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room proved that Benson and his backing band can spin off a 20-song set of high energy, endlessly melodic rock songs, even if some of those songs are tinged with regret.
Benson has been releasing Badfinger-inspired albums since 1996's One Mississippi, but his profile has risen considerably since he joined forces with Jack White in the Raconteurs. When I reviewed that band's sold-out show last summer, I posited that the Raconteurs "exists to introduce Benson's considerable gifts to a larger audience." Judging by the the three-fourths full room at the Duck Room, it would seem like collateral success has largely eluded Benson's solo career. He still makes great records and puts on a fine show, but I was surprised that more curious Raconteurs fans didn't take the plunge.
Flanked by a drummer, bassist and guitarist/keyboardist, Benson took the stage just after 10 p.m. and kicked off with "A Whole Lot Better," the opening track to this year's My Old, Familiar Friend. From there, the band tore through a string of upbeat, charging songs from Benson's four albums. At times the band sounded like a less-threatening Thin Lizzy (as on the Lapalco track "Good to Me'); at other points, the synthy strings of "Garbage Day" suggested bucolic '60s pop.
But while the quality of the songs was always top-notch, there were few moments of dynamic range in last night's set. When nearly every song employs sweet harmonies and tidy guitar riffs, it can be hard to distinguish one from another. Benson did shift the tempo slightly by strapping on an acoustic guitar for "Metarie," but the slower pace and lack of guitar interplay seemed to stymie the band; even though it is one of his best songs, last night "Metarie" never took flight.
The crowd was mostly respectful though a little reserved through most of the set, but "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" provided the biggest response, with its bell-like keyboard hook providing an almost Pavlovian response. That good will was boosted with another older cut, the blistering "You're Quiet." The proper set ended shortly thereafter, and Benson and co. returned to the stage for "What I'm Looking For" before inviting opening act Cory Chisel up for a faithful pass at Tom Petty's "American Girl." That proved a winning move -- really, who doesn't love "American Girl"? It's basically perfect -- and the crowd demanded one more. The night ended with the new track "Feel Like Taking You Home," and its Franz Ferdinand-like bass and drum patterns gave a little touch of menace to an overall cheery set.
Opener Cory Chisel played a well-received set of tunes powered by pop smarts and earnest heartland ache. Looking like a taller, greasier Jack White in a fedora and button-snap shirt, Chisel and his band the Wandering Sons promised to play "sad songs" to offset Benson's happier fare, but his smoky voice and Mellencampian songcraft won over many in the crowd.
Setlist (thanks to Rob S.) A Whole Lot Better Don't Wanna Talk Folk Singer Good To Me Eyes On The Horizon Spit It Out Metarie Me Just Purely Sittin' Pretty Garbage Day I'm Blessed Poised And Ready Cold Hands (Warm Heart) Crosseyed You're Quiet Tiny Spark
Encore: What I'm Looking For American Girl (Tom Petty) (With Corey Chisel And Others)
Encore: Feel Like Taking You Home