Benjamin Booker – Mercury Lounge – November 6, 2014
There was little known about Benjamin Booker, a one-time aspiring music journalist, his last time through town to play Mercury Lounge in April. He had just a few singles, a minimal Internet presence and a pretty short bio: “Benjamin Booker is a young New Orleans–based singer-songwriter. He is influenced by the Gun Club, Blind Willie Johnson and T. Rex.” Since then, his sensational self-titled debut full-length was released to near unanimous praise and his profile has risen dramatically, thanks in part to an opening slot on tour with Jack White, fiery festival performances at Newport Folk Fest and Lollapalooza, and a national TV appearance on Letterman. So in some sense, seeing him last night at Mercury Lounge was like catching Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark Jr. there four days apart in December 2011—watching a musician play a room he’d already outgrown.
Booker’s debut LP showcases an evocative, whiskey-soaked voice that belies his young age. (Based on what he sounds like, you almost expect him to appear live in sepia tones or black and white.) Released this past August, it’s obviously a modern album, but from the very first listen, the punkish, soulful bluesy garage rock sounds familiar, like an unearthed gem from the past—not like you’d previously heard its influences, but rather you’d actually already heard this album. Performed live, alongside a pair of talented musicians, drummer-mandolinist Max Norton and bassist-fiddler Alex Spoto, songs like “Violent Shiver,” “Have You Seen My Son?” and “Old Hearts” grew into something more than their recorded versions, Booker’s raw, raspy vocals blossoming onstage as the trio jammed their way between tunes, often making a lot more joyful noise than your typical three-piece.
While incredibly expressive, Booker, who began performing live just two years ago, wasn’t particularly chatty. “It’s nice to be back at Mercury Lounge. We played here earlier in the year. It’s one of my favorite rooms. Here we go,” he said just before they lit into “Kids Never Grow Older,” a sweating Booker quietly barking out the opening stanza in a whispered snarl. Alternating between standing still with his left leg twisting in place and hopping across the stage, belting out distorted guitar riffs, he appeared to be every bit of a star in the making. No more so than as the show concluded with him, his guitar strap broken, shredding from his knees at center stage. Booker still has room—and time—to grow, and even despite singing, “The future is slow coming” in “Slow Coming,” in some ways, it feels like it’s here now, and Benjamin Booker has already arrived, fully formed. —R. Zizmor