The 100 Club / September 2nd | More photos of the show by Alec Bruce here.
It seemed as if nothing could check the impetuous march of Benjamin Booker’s pop-inflected country blues this year. The twenty-five-year-old’s soulful voice defied expectations at SXSW with barely any recorded material to his name. After signing to Rough Trade and touring with Jack White and Courney Barnett he received more eager attention, and tonight’s gig takes place at the 100 Club, a venue which often invites the journalistic cliché of writing: “it’s where acts play before they break”.
Posters around the venue proudly inform the crowd that tonight’s show is sold out and evidently many of those gathered here have ventured out to see what all the fuss is about. The young Floridian appears onstage not long after the designated start time accompanied by faithful drummer Max Norton and recent addition, bassist Alex Spoto. The high energy blues shuffle ‘Always Waiting’ initiates the crowd into Booker’s raspy bourbon voice. It’s pleasant, but not enough to save the show from going amiss. The down-tempo swamp blues riffs of ‘Happy Homes’ draws muted responses and Spoto’s mid-set fiddle playing is wearing.
Much of this show is in a perpetual state of limbo with some moments of recovery, as on the rambunctious and seething ‘Wicked Waters’, but for the most part Booker’s guitar only has two settings – a dirty clean and a fuzz tone lifted straight from Jack White, and he uses neither to express what hasn’t been said a hundred times before. It’s massively derivative pentatonic blues – the likes of which are a tuppence a dozen in the bars of London. It becomes disheartening to realise that Booker doesn’t use the blues innovatively, that many of his chord progressions and vocal melodies are given a very commercial bent. It’s less like listening to the five-note unpredictability of his heroes The Gun Club and more like listening to mid-career Kings Of Leon.
Happier for Booker is the fact that pockets of tonight’s audience don’t seem to mind. Big single and Chuck Berry lick ‘Violent Shiver’ is given a lively reception, although awkwardly most of the crowd are unsure where it ends thanks to a longer than usual pause. Before the last song Booker informs everyone that he “can honestly say that you guys are the best crowd we’ve ever had”. The remark has a slightly tragic air about it, but after launching into final song ‘Have You Seen My Son?’ all is forgotten in a spray of thrown drinks and excited shoulder bumping from his front-row enthusiasts. The set ends much as it has dragged on. The Led Zep style outro is coloured by diluted Jack White licks and Booker leaves no room for an encore. Unfortunately this is another 100 Club alumnus to be added to pile of almost-but-not-quite hopefuls. You’d get a profounder education in the evolution of R&B by investing in a Beyonce ticket.