November 22, 2010

Approachable and Acoustic

Print More

While they often provide for memorable evenings for hardcore fans, acoustic sets provide a danger for artists of all sizes and skills. Singers are left vulnerable, both emotionally and musically. As has occurred at many open mic nights, songwriters are either revealed to be too self-serious regarding their own balladry or not nearly as good of a singer as they should be in such an exposed atmosphere. Luckily, Sunday night’s set at The Haunt provided some solace from self-seriousness and navel-gazing. It featured artists who exhibited the ability to pair moments of beauty with self-deprecating, crowd-engaging fun.

Opener Julia Nunes (pronounced “noons”), a college-aged, ukelele-playing singer-songwriter whose career was propelled by a series of YouTube videos, took the stage with little fuss, launching into twee-sounding songs littered with personal anecdotes and heartfelt lyrics about lost love and compromise. Her onstage demeanor matched her songwriting — she was very personable and funny when discussing a song about college orientation called “First Impressions” and responding to a particularly well placed “that’s what she said” from an audience member. She interpolated her straight-faced love songs with some entertaining attempts at beat boxing during her songs, but the highlight of the set was a cover of The Foundations’ classic “Build Me Up Buttercup,” which had even the most jaded members of the crowd clapping and singing along, however hesitantly.

Headliner Ben Kweller followed after a sizeable break, and immediately got the crowd’s attention with a cut from his debut album Sha Sha, slacker anthem “Commerce, Texas.” Originally an electric piece falling somewhere between Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair” and early Weezer, the song’s climax could have been defanged by the acoustic setting. Luckily and unexpectedly, Kweller stomped on a fuzz box at the right time, launching into rock star mode and joyously leaping across stage in full-out headbanger mode. Immediately, the audience knew that they were in for a fun night.

Kweller’s onstage persona comes off, like his music, as carefree and approachable, spending the evening exchanging banter with the audience and admitting when he messed up lyrics. Baby-faced and teenage-voiced, his hackneyed rhymes and overwrought “love songs” come off as sweet rather than amateur. Such shortcomings, magnified on record, can be forgiven when actually in the presence of Kweller in all his goofy charm.

Kweller’s song choice was well balanced, not only focusing on his (admittedly less successful) recent ventures into country-tinged balladry, but the power-pop from his first two records as well. Starting the night out on guitar, he played with reckless abandon, changing his vocal phrasing on songs and breaking into fuzzed-out solos on would-be rockers, providing his audience with some visceral thrills. His playfulness was highlighted when, after taking a break to get Nunes onstage and suck on a Halls cough drop, he and his opener launched into a hip-hop rendition of Kweller’s ode to his wife, “Sundress.” While the effort was quickly aborted in favor of something more akin to the original version, it was refreshing to see an artist deal with such personal subject-matter with a sense of humor. Kweller’s laid-back Texas vibe kept the night light and happy, switching to piano to play rollicking rock-and-roll songs like “Hospital Bed” along with set staples “In Other Words” and “Thirteen.”

Having entered the music industry at the age of 13 as part of the hotly tipped power-pop group Radish, one would expect that he would have grown, 17 years later, to become a jaded veteran of the concert circuit. Fortunately for his audience on Sunday, he was youthful and exuberant. The man seems to really enjoy his job, having a smashing time swinging at his guitar and banging on his piano. The manic joy seen on his face as he switches between instruments and sings the upper-register figures on set-closer “Penny on a Train Track” is infectious; fans were pleased, and newcomers would have been charmed into buying a record.

Original Author: James Rainis