I don’t remember exactly when or how I began listening to Texan/Austinite Ben Kweller, all I remember was that I was one cool kid jamming the insanely catchy pop-rock tunes on the middle school bus, annoying the shit out of the kid sitting next to me. I would purposely blast “Penny On a Train Track” and “Sundress” in an attempt to educate all the other lame kids sitting around, providing them with an example on what real music sounded like. Through my juvenile eyes, Kweller’s path as a musician seemed quite awkward. I remember him playing huge festival stages like ACL and Lollapalooza, playing with a huge sound, and even I knew he was onto something big. But as years past his name only seemed to minimize in the press, I took this as a hint that he had fallen off, or perhaps even given up on making it big. Eventually Ben’s music became something I just seemed to outgrow, something that I was too cool for.
Well, I’m in college now……. and what the fuck was I thinking?
After hearing that he would be playing a free show on the lush lawn of my small, liberal arts school, I became generally excited to take part in what sounded like another boring campus event. I began to remember the images of the Austin City Limits Festival in 2006 when Ben had an unfortunate nose bleed that cut his set short. The dude asked all the ladies in the crowd to throw him a tampon, which he ensued to plug up his nose. At the time I didn’t really get what was happening or why everyone was laughing their asses off, but when I look back at that moment I can’t help but not smile and laugh out loud a little to myself (Youtube it). It was refreshing to witness the one time slacker Indie-rock kid, who is now a father, and his band take the small stage and play to a crowd of roughly 50 to 60 people. He played a well balanced set of oldies like “Commerce, TX”, “Falling”, “Hospital Beds”, “On My Way” and some new-ish material, and it rocked, just like it did back in middle school. But what really won me over was his personality, and genuine openness with his audience. Jokes were cracked, and his awesome kids danced around the stage in support. He even accepted a request, “Rock N Roll All Night”, from one of his kids and a wonderful singalong commenced. The dude was being himself, relying on nothing but his positive words and guitar. That’s something I rarely see anymore.
Too often I find that an artist’s image can overwhelm a listener’s perspective of the music, for better or for worse. Lana del Rey, Odd Future, any mainstream rapper, any Urban Outfitter sponsored band, all somewhat rely on their personal appearance to create a brand in the listener’s mind, which in return compliments or kills the music they create. I’m not downplaying this strategy or saying its wrong (Daft Punk worked out well, right?), I’m simply trying to point out that these artists who market themselves this way are not the artists that I will remember when I show my kids the stuff I jammed to as a kid. It’s artists like Ben Kweller, artists who are willing to be themselves, artists willing to sacrifice commercial success and image in return for a personal connection with their audience, artists who choose to use their words rather than their boobs/ass for attention, who will uphold the simple joy of music for our future generations. I forgot to mention he has some insanely catchy indie-rock songs about drinking jager all day, having a pet hedgehog, and being “wasted and ready”, which is pretty god damn awesome, and something that I’m totally not too cool for. You da man Ben.