Brendan Benson’s infectious pop rock has been around for more than 15 years, beginning with 1996’s under-the-radar release One Mississippi. He gained minor recognition in 2002 with Lapalco and then broke into the big time after hanging out with Jack White and forming the Raconteurs. He proved a perfect complement to White, sharing in his love for classic rock, but adding a pop sensibility to White’s rough bluesy edges.
With the Raconteurs on hiatus, both White and Benson have released new solo albums this year and embarked on national tours. But unlike White, Benson is familiar with the solo circuit — and the loneliness that can ensue. Brendan Benson played at The Independent, in promotion of his new album What Kind of World, in San Francisco last week to an appreciative but meager crowd.
The night got off to a vibrant start with the Howling Brothers. The bluegrass band from Tennessee played rousing “river boat swing,” complete with guitar, string bass, banjo, harmonica and cowboy hats. Young Hines entered shortly thereafter — just him and his electric guitar — and immediately quieted the crowd with a wistful and gorgeous original tune called “Lost in the Mix.” But right when the crowd was settling into what appeared to be the beginning of a calm and beautiful set, Hines brought out a backing band, turned the amps up and rocked hard with some especially killer guitar riffs.
The band filled their half hour with a mixed bag of genres, effortlessly transitioning from ballad to blues to pop to hard rock. Hines’ voice proved delightfully versatile, ably hitting the high notes on their Beatles-esque tunes while screeching through a megaphone on their bluesy numbers. Based on what the pleasantly surprised crowd heard in San Francisco, it won’t be too long until Young Hines gains some deserved recognition.
By the time Brendan Benson came out, good vibes were reverberating off the walls of The Independent. Benson and his backing band strapped on their guitars and began with the electrifying chords of “The Light of Day,” a particularly strong track from What Kind of World. Benson breezed through his catalog, hitting on both old and new. The audience bobbed their heads knowingly to the brilliant melody of “Metarie,” rocked out to Raconteurs highlight “Hands” and showed their appreciation for skilled songwriting in the new single “Bad For Me.”
Benson, who was wearing a flannel-checked shirt and skinny jeans, acknowledged his appreciation for who was there.
But you couldn’t help getting the impression that he was slightly thrown off by the sparsity of the crowd. He ran a tight ship and hardly went off script, save one moment when his bassist seemed to be missing the notes. Benson smiled — half in amusement, half in exasperation — and urged him, “Come on!” All the songs were true to the recordings — perhaps too true. After the laid-back feel of the opening acts, Benson could have benefited by learning from them and loosening up a bit.
However, Benson’s songs are so well-crafted that it made his by-the-book approach worth it. Benson’s incredible knack for pop melodies was apparent. It’s a shame there weren’t more people there to witness the show, because his infectiously catchy music has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of listeners. Overall, Brendan Benson’s set wasn’t revolutionary, but it was enjoyable and very satisfying.
His music has the power to substantially improve your mood. As Benson said himself in “A Whole Lot Better” — “I feel a whole lot better when you come around.” The sentiment of the evening was perfectly summed up by one fan as Benson made his exit: “Definitely not bad for a Wednesday night.”