At about 11 p.m., singer-songwriter Ben Lee walked onstage at the Hollywood branch of the Knitting Factory wearing a red cape. Now, this is not strange if you’re Stevie Nicks or the Aquabats, but for Ben Lee it looked rather odd. You didn’t know whether he was just being random or ironic, or if his arrogance had now manifested itself into superhero costumes. However, a few numbers into his wildly amusing 17-song set, it made sense.
For this particular show, the Australia native didn’t break any rules as much as he just didn’t acknowledge any. He spent much of the 70-minute set sitting on a stool, playing an acoustic guitar, mostly eschewing hits—however you would define a Ben Lee hit—and, most memorably, cracking jokes. In fact, despite the engaging character he projected into his songs, it might’ve been the various puns and humorous interactions with the 200 or so crowd members that really made the performance.
Any singer-songwriter can throw an audience their favorite songs and fill the dead air with stories and observations. But Lee’s strength on this particular night was his sense of humor, aided no doubt by how much he was enjoying himself. On several different occasions, he reminded the crowd that he was having the time of his life, and at no time during his set could that have been contested.
Much of Lee’s demeanor seems likely rooted in how pleased he is with his artistic output of late. Before this month’s “tour,” he had been recording music in a Los Angeles house with producer Brad Wood—who helmed the artist’s first two solo albums, as well as the long player by his childhood band, Noise Addict—and other musician friends. According to his online diary, he’s not only enjoying the recording sessions, he’s very pleased with his most current batch of songs. The Los Angeles concert appearance is among a handful taking place this month—less a six-gigs-a-week grind across the country and more a casual sampling of big-market cities in which to test new material. Without the rigors of an album-promotion trek, and with the casualness that comes from having your pals—such as actor and former Phantom Planet drummer Jason Schwartzman, and current album collaborator Lara May—comprise your backing band, it’s no surprise that Lee’s shows are so loose and off the cuff.
It seemed that Lee’s guest players had to keep on their toes, as you couldn’t guess where he might go from one minute to the next. He’d forget a lyric here, start an impromptu cover there, and both Schwartzman and May—swapping instruments, though the former served mostly as drummer, while the latter was usually found behind the keyboards—ably followed suit. In a move that was probably more rehearsed than it seemed, Lee began playing “California”, the theme song to The O.C. performed by Schwartzman’s old band.
He also performed a rousing, stripped-down cover of Modest Mouse’s current breakout hit, “Float On”. Lee introduced that selection as his contribution to a split 7” single (on his new indie label, Ten Fingers) he recently did with indie girl group Pony Up, whose fawning “Matthew Modine”—complete with Liz Phair-homage lyrics (“We want to be your blow job queens”)—he also played.
Within his own discography, Lee indulged the crowd with “Pop Queen”, “Away With the Pixies” and Song 4 You”, all from his 1995 debut Grandpaw Would, as well as “Cigarettes Will Kill You”, the first single from his most accomplished album, 1999’s Breathing Tornadoes, and “Chills” from last year’s Hey You, Yes You. He even included “Bruised”, a Ben Folds Five song he recorded with Ben Folds and Ben Kweller last year. The remainder of the set list highlighted newer, unreleased songs like “No Right Angles” and “Gamble Everything For Love”—both resonating as much or more than his more familiar material. It didn’t matter that the crowd didn’t know the words, a la “Cigarettes”, because his vocal delivery—almost more so than the songwriting itself—was so rich in character.
And then there was the alternating hammy/self-effacing banter. After “No Right Angles”, he started in on jazz, where he concluded, “Jazz is all about—oh, what the fuck do I know about jazz?” Before “Cigarettes”, he spotted a girl with sunglasses on, which he promptly took because, as he declared, “I’m the rock star.” And when he forgot the lyrics during “Bruised”, he tried to cover up by explaining that “anyone can do ‘professional’.” Usually, rocker comedy tends to be more the product of heavy drinking than anything, but Lee was more lost in the spontaneity of the show than stumbling through inebriation. Sometimes, it wasn’t that he was witty or funny, but merely random, and for some reason, randomness through a concert venue PA brings on the giggles.
Lee’s too-short performance worked so well because he used the intimacy to his advantage. He was clearly comfortable with his band members and the crowd—and his material, for that matter—and ultimately synergized the elements of other skilled singer-songwriter performers (think Ben Folds). And, for a show aimed at debuting fresh material, its carefree, warts-and-all exhibition seemed to allow him to lay on the charm.
Performing before Lee was San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Sean Hayes, an unfamiliar face to the 50 or so people actually paying attention to the stage area of the venue. Though the set felt too subdued at times, it was certainly competent. The most affecting number was “Dream Machine”, the highlight of Bay Area producer/DJ Mark Farina’s 2003 studio album, Air Farina album. Hayes’ delicate, yearning croon is the soul of the electronic version found on Air Farina, and he gracefully empowered the largely acoustic version played at the Knitting Factory, as well.
As for outlandish costumes, Hayes did not wear a cape—if only because Lee was wearing his.