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Ben Lee’s Modesty Rocks

May 26th, 2009

The Bowery Ballroom – May 22, 2009

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Ben Lee travels light. Using players from opening band Low vs. Diamond as his backing, Lee walked out with only a small, vaguely Polynesian guitar. He could realistically put his entire tour in the overhead compartment of a domestic airliner. Even Lee’s personality betrays an economy of size. But he doesn’t demand attention—it just kind of finds him.

In the second song of the night, the keyboardist plunked out the familiar chimes of “Catch My Disease.” The audience, without a hint of irony or smack, moved and sang along. There was something so winning and ebullient about Lee chanting the lines, “They don’t play me on the radio/And that’s the way I like it” that everyone forgot that a national advertising campaign tried to kill us with this song in 2007. Much later in the set, Lee played a cover of the Ataris’ anti-Lee diatribe “Ben Lee, You Suck.” It was catchy, and Lee somehow made modesty look attractive—pop music that folds easily under a bed.

Lee played a number of tracks off his new album, The Rebirth of Venus: the contradictory and bouncy “I Love Pop Music” and the call-and-response “Surrender.” As Lee chanted the lyrics of the latter, the crowd yelled back. Nominally, the song is about letting yourself fall in love, but the lyrics of “Let go/Give up/Give in/Surrender” took on a different meaning. The audience had already given up—a capitulation to Lee’s carbonated persona and unassuming music. If you don’t bring much with you, you have to leave everything behind. —Geoff Nelson