BENJAMIN BOOKER: LIVE at LANEWAY Sydney 2015 (Album: BENJAMIN BOOKER August 19, 2014)
One word. Supernatural. It’s the only way I can describe what phenomenon took place at 1.50pm on Garden Stage. Given the unearthly talent, I struggled to understand how he wasn’t slotted in for a later set in the lineup.
This twenty five year old American (based in New Orleans) singer – songwriter’s focus is blues, rock, and garage rock. He belongs to an instinctive class of soulful boogie and blues all his own. If you were fortunate enough to observe Booker on stage, you would appreciate the following descriptive phrasing all the more: Spine tingling frantic guitar picking and powerfully fervent vocals to properly seal the deal. A luminous, crazed type of detonative garage/blues rock, eruptive, expressive, emotive and electrifying. Benjamin Booker was as rampant and raw as you could imagine.
I’ve been enjoying his remarkable self titled debut album since its release in August 2014, but to see him perform live is an experience. One you won’t soon forget. Given the depth of lyrical content injected throughout his material and the manner in which he delivers such live, it would seem Booker were born an old man, an extremely talented wise old man. Booker’s intention was to enter into music journalism following his journalistic studies. How ironic for such an observant storytelling performer. He belongs on this side of the fence. Any other way would just be wrong and such an extraordinary loss for music lovers everywhere. Yes he is that incredible.
Booker appears on stage, and you’d think he’d been doing this his whole life. The massive crowd, already wild with anticipation, fueled even further by Booker’s energetic embodiment. He presented as extremely cool and fluid in his stance on stage, perfectly natural.
Booker was accompanied on stage by Max Norton, drummer, and Alex Spoto, bassist. The pure passion shared by these three on stage was undeniable, and such unquestionable synchronicity. Together they created a contagious vibe that the audience was more than happy to catch.
The set deviated at times a little from material off the debut album – but this didn’t seem to bother the die-hard fans that could not refrain from repetitively chanting: BENJI BENJI BENJI…I’ll take a punt, a sign of approval and adoration I would say. Such affection, they simply could not get enough. Nor could I.
How does one begin to explain what was happening on stage? A continuous barrage sparked by almighty guitar riffs, powerful drums almost primal at times in tone and at the forefront, Booker - feverishly strumming chords on his guitar and racing even faster to release vocals at that very speed, or he just might have self combusted. I was so impressed as I looked back at the crowd to find that most were familiar with the words Booker was singing, the very one’s he’d penned himself. What a privilege to have been singing alongside Booker’s positively gritty voice, so coarse, yet so beautifully pure at the same time. His power to entrance lured and locked each and everyone of us in. Magic. We beheld, and yet Booker appeared confidently at ease amidst the pandemonium this small outfit had sparked on stage. Put simply, Booker’s an absolute natural.
We were treated to a couple of real strong crowd pleasers off the album. Wicked Waters could not have been received better, nor performed better. This is truly not just a job for Booker, one could appreciate that Booker was on stage entertaining us simply for the utter love. I continued to watch on mesmerized, with much respect and tried ever so hard not to blink for fear of missing even half a breath. The stage was on fire and I made a conscious effort at directing and redirecting my line of vision equally among the three on stage as I felt they were honestly one whole entity. Booker continued to bleed his heart and soul into that microphone: “… I’ll make it on this run… I’m a new beginning…” You’ve already made it in our eyes, Benji.
Cut to Violent Shiver, first track off the album and one of the most exciting songs to have made one hell of an introductory statement for Benjamin Booker in 2014 with it’s impactful international release. At this point, the crowd was thrust into an even more rapturous state, shouting every single word at their Benji. Booker’s familiar exquisite contorted guitar sounds embraced his rasping voice sublimely here - refreshingly unique. If you didn’t know who Booker was (sacrilege), and heard him even faintly from afar somewhere among the grounds of heavenly Laneway land, you might have imagined him to be a mature aged emphysema recovering vintage blues rock legend – as opposed to a mid twenties up and coming. Well this crowd was certainly well acquainted with Booker, and partied hard with the wizard who has already been compared to Jimi Hendrix. Not bad at all.
An unexpected and particular highlight for me during the performance was when Booker placed his guitar down and walked toward the rear of the stage, clearly stalling. We observed Spoto do the same; only his guitar was promptly swapped for a violin. We noticed at the same time, Norton replacing his sticks for what looks like a mandolin. I tried to count the strings from my position at front left of the stage, I was fairly certain there appeared to be eight, so mandolin it must have been I thought to myself. I’m sure everybody felt the same as myself at the time, I could just sense that something quite special was about to unfold. Booker swaggered slowly back to the microphone front of stage and out of the corner of my eye I observed Spoto applying the finishing touches to the tuning process of his violin. At which point, my ears were alerted to something happening toward the other direction upon the stage, I looked over quickly to find Norton gently and quietly plucking away at the mandolin, with an almost invisible plectrum from where I was standing. Booker engaged in a momentary discreet verbal exchange with Spoto and very soon thereafter, we were all treated to an unbelievable blues based track, performed with nothing more than the violin, mandolin and Booker’s moving vocals. The two instrumentalists played impossibly well. I was astonished at how astoundingly breathtaking an inspired performance it was, its haunting beauty was not lost on me. I caught a mere glance at the crowd yet again as I swiftly looked back and it was more than clear that the mood had altered accordingly. The unpredictable offering suitably touched the audience. I felt something quite spiritual was taking place. Even if one was not a fan of this genre of music, I don’t believe that they could have in good conscience walked away. No matter what, one could not ignore the fact that they were in the presence of such rare quality and substance.
I reminded myself that I had in fact expected something close to near perfect in anticipation of Booker’s set. At that precise moment, I decided that Booker and band had indeed exceeded my conservative scale of anticipatory measurement. They had extended themselves to their audience in a manner unpredictable, but so very welcomed and appreciated. I also reminded myself that Jack White having personally requested Benjamin Booker as his support act during his U.S national tour was no happy accident. He too is a fan much like all the many others and myself who stood in the crowd that day soaking it all in.
I have a strong suspicion that before too very long, Benjamin Booker will be fulfilling headlining status commitments. His preparedness is not arbitrary.
Benjamin Booker was obviously a definite Laneway absolute standout for me personally, and I’m guessing for many others as well fortunate enough to have witnessed the untold talent.
Mary ‘Mazza’ Di Matteo Editor In Chief