When an artist decides to do an album concert, it begs the question: What makes a record worth devoting an entire concert to? In the case of Ben Kweller, that question has to be asked three times.
5-7 September 2007 In an age where interrupting a tune takes little more than a click of the mouse, the integrity of the album is often lost on listeners. As a result, many records are less coherent pieces of art and more collections of semi-related songs. So, when an artist decides to do an entire record live, it begs the question: What about this album makes it worth devoting an entire concert to? In the case of Ben Kweller, that question has to be asked three times. In a reprise of his successful Brooklyn stint, the folky popster hit LA’s the Echo to play three albums (virtually his entire solo catalogue) in three consecutive nights. After singer/songwriter Willy Mason kicked off night one with an earnest folk set, Kweller bounced cheerfully onstage. Sporting the floppy-eared hat on the album’s cover photo, he immediately wished everyone a happy Sha Sha day. As promised, he launched right into the album, pounding out “How It Should Be (Sha Sha)” on the piano. Although everyone received a commemorative lyric book, the guides clearly weren’t needed -- most fans had no trouble singing along without them (some, perhaps, a little louder than necessary). The 26-year-old has been performing for over a decade (he was the teenage frontman of the much-hyped Radish), but Sha Sha is still his best album: each song, right up to the final piano ballad, “Falling”, is a pop gem. Bandmates Chris Morrissey (bass) and Mark Stepro (drums) recreated the work done by John Lattanzi (bass) and John Kent (drums) so well and had such great onstage rapport with Kweller that one would think they’d always been his band (in fact, they have never appeared on his albums). After finishing his performance of the record, Kweller treated listeners to three new songs; each indicated that his forthcoming release is likely to have a country feel. Then, audience members picked three more songs from a box onstage -- a little earlier he gave away toothbrushes from the same receptacle -- “I Need You Back” and “Believer” from On My Way, and “Sundress” from his self-titled release. The band broke out into a jam session during “Believer” that, for a second, made the boy-next-door Kweller seem like a larger-than-life rock god. Those going to the other two concerts would be hearing these three songs again. It took away some of the effect of hearing the three albums in three nights, but it was a nice gesture for single-night ticket holders. The advantage of this kind of set-up is that one got the chance to hear songs live that Kweller rarely plays, such as “Harriet’s Got a Song” (sans xylophone), a fuzzy guitar number with a melodic chorus. The disadvantage is the predictability. Part of the fun of going to a concert is wondering which songs will be played (that’s why I never look up set-lists before concerts). Night two’s performance of On My Way saw the smallest crowd of the three, mostly due to confusion about the early start time (6:30 instead of 8 pm). This time, the giveaway box was covered in On My Way shirts, and Kweller appeared in a wolf hat -- a nod to the wolves on the album’s cover. Of the three, On My Way is perhaps Kweller’s weakest album, but its rawness does make it a perfect candidate for live performance. Highlights on the album are the boisterous sing-along “Hospital Bed” and the cozy ode to Brooklyn, “My Apartment”. These songs are still standouts live, but so are the hard rockers “The Rules” and “Ann Disaster”. The Chapin Sisters, a sister trio whose harmonies could make even Britney Spears’ “Toxic” sound eerily beautiful, opened on the third and final night before lending way to the final installment in Kweller’s triptych. Ben Kweller is the hardest album to recreate live because the singer did all the instrumentation himself. As such, Kweller enlisted audience participation for the triangle solo in the catchy “Magic”. The teenage girl who claimed to know the part was clearly lying -- or was so nervous that she forgot it -- and, instead of chiming in periodically, banged the instrument throughout the song, adding an unfortunate distraction. Then again, that’s part of the spontaneity of live performances. If I want a perfect version, I can listen to it at home. The party favors from the BK box were bandanas, no doubt so that fans could imitate Kweller’s look on the album’s cover. The audience picked out the encore songs again, but, after a band huddle, the boys decided to add a fourth tune -- a band version of “On My Way” -- which Kweller usually plays alone. There’s something to be said for hearing a song exactly as it’s played on an album, but his bandmates did add a fullness to the normally acoustic ballad. Kweller then played new song “Fight” -- an amusing trucker tune -- for the third night in a row. (By this point, most in the audience had learned the words.) “Walk on Me” followed, before fan favorite/college student anthem “Wasted and Ready” closed the night. Afterwards, there was a pizza party downstairs for those who had bought tickets to the entire series. After three nights in the intimate venue, fans chatted with Kweller and his bandmates like old friends. Of course, it wasn’t just the artist himself that we’d had the chance to cozy up to: hearing the albums consecutively and in their entirety had given us the chance to explore the ways in which Kweller has grown as an artist. Each album has a distinct feel -- Sha Sha is silly, On My Way is rocking, and Ben Kweller is introspective -- and, taken together, they offer a portrait of his progression. Not to say that regular concerts and modern mixes are without merit, but, still, try getting that from a randomized playlist.