Why do sugar-coated statements that merely elicit ennui when enveloped inside fortune cookies sound endearing when coming from Ben Kweller’s mouth and recordings?
Not angry enough to be a rock star, disturbed enough to be a musical genius or attractive enough to be a sex symbol, Kweller comes off as a close older cousin whose lyrics are letters to his relatives, the listeners. His image hinges on his lack of image.
This is a stark contrast to the rock musician fetishized as a superhuman, even messianic figure, unreachable for his complex and disturbed mind, a martyr at the altar of art. Kweller pretty much annihilated any chance of such status the first time his lyrics alluded to his cat.
When the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s songs aren’t feline-inspired, they’re still reliably family friendly. At least someone at everyone’s dinner table spouts the aphorisms that prevail in his acclaimed first album Sha Sha, which reads as a coming-of-age story: “It’s up to me if I decide to be what I think is right.” “It’s gonna take a lot of time before I can cross that finish line.” “There’s no reason to cry.”
Kweller’s live performances put in plain view why he gets away with being a cliché apologist. He is all human and no hype. Behind the unassuming, teddy bear exterior is an unassuming teddy bear. Take away the catchy self-esteem anthems, and he is a walking self-esteem banner.
“No one’s a winner unless everyone’s a winner,” he told the cozy but tightly-packed Brooklyn Rock Shop last Saturday — an atmosphere so intimate that the crowd could see a set list taped to the stage, beginning with “My Apartment.”
The acoustic folk rocker explained that he wrote this ode to a safe haven amidst the New York City streets upon arrival in Brooklyn. One can imagine the petite, wrinkly-clothed, scraggly-haired twenty-something tentatively crouched outside his apartment, thanking the contaminated sky and strange cityscape for one friendly location.
Kweller’s cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” would fool anyone who didn’t know the song into thinking he originated it, between the suitably meditative lyrics and the natural folk-rock aesthetic. He was a bit depressed before the concert and found the guests at the Rock Shop “moody,” he told them, joking that the song “wasn’t on the set list, but it was in the air.”
The multi-talented musician alternately accompanied his vocals on guitar, harmonica and piano. Opening act Julia Nunes, pianist “John Shade” (who, Kweller confessed, is actually named Dave) and former Moldy Peaches front man Adam Green also joined the headliner on stage for bits of the concert.
Nunes’ harmony enhanced the chorus of “Sundress,” and Kweller and Green admittedly indulged themselves by performing “Jessica,” Green’s nonsensical college radio hit mocking reality TV star Jessica Simpson.
A later cover of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” performed alongside Green, was less fluid but more amusing. In a Freudian slip that eradicated all doubts about the unconscious, Green stumbled over the line, “We’ll perfect our chemistry,” singing instead, “We’ll forget our chemistry.”
After Green staggered off the stage, the concert’s energy hit its peak and Kweller got about as risqué as he ever will, strumming his electric guitar with exaggerated arm motions while belting, “Show me all the rules, girl. I just want to get them wrong.” By then, I had grown so accustomed to his voice carrying lines like, “Momma, I always dreamt of being a good listener” that I bought “The Rules” as a statement of rocker rebellion.
The evening’s greatest treasures were the head-bobbers and hip-swayers that loyal fans, whose attendance represented an astounding age range, would not have wanted any way other than true to the original.
Hearing and seeing Kweller’s vocals, piano, body language and facial expressions during “In Other Words” felt like watching a movie so carefully modeled after a loved novel that it seems to have sprung from the reader’s imagination. Listening to the album version of the slow, haunting ballad about deception evokes the exact image that manifested onstage. The artist’s fingertips fluttered across the keys, punching out airwave emotions, as his souring voice contemplated butterflies.
The much-appreciated encore provided another tear jerker. Contrary to what the title suggests, “Falling” is about an experience of new love – love with a significant other, and love of a city – that feels not like falling, but like saying “hello to the ground.” I used to think the hazy inflections in “Falling” ’s line about Times Square were the electronic effects of studio recording, but the performance proved that this sonic quality is in Kweller’s very biology.
The concert couldn’t have ended on a better note (pun intended), as he loosened up and took out the electric guitar again for “Wasted and Ready,” which screams with the angst of a younger Kweller who feels “maxed out like a credit card.” By the end, the audience lost all inhibitions and accompanied him on the show’s closing line, “I’m running as fast as I can!”
Seeing Kweller live will not add to fans’ knowledge of him, but will confirm what they already knew: Far from the New York neon lights in “Falling,” he is more like “My Apartment,” a beacon of warmth rising above the cold sidewalk cement of rock stardom.
He probably rehearses for concerts in front of his cat.