Back in August, Benjamin Booker
was sitting at his new home in New Orleans and about to tour for the remainder of the fall. That respite followed a tour with Jack White
and a string of dates after signing with ATO Records, who came calling at a Florida gig where he signed the deal in the parking lot. Booker's Nov. 1 set at the 2014 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience
was his first New Orleans show as the newly signed new New Orleanian with a self-titled debut and critical acclaim. That Booker — the "everything happening all at once" 25-year-old rookie songwriter
from Florida who fell hard into a press and tour circus seemingly overnight — was a mere shadow of the confident, feedback-wielding rock 'n' roll frontman on the intimate Flambeau stage.
Booker (in a Halloween leftover feather boa) dangled a cigarette from his mouth and arranged an electric blue wig on bassist Alex Spoto before arranging his gear: a guitar, a distortion pedal, and a small amplifier. Drummer Max Norton, on a small riser to Booker's right, filled out the trio — which crashed through album highlights like the shuffling grooves of "Chippewa" and the straight-forward punk rocker "Old Hearts." Booker often cites The Gun Club as his ideal, a band that shoved blues into punk with anarchic finesse. Booker's getting close, riding waves of feedbacking crescendos and howling with a smoke-brittle, throaty voice, the kind that, if it sticks, will sing some spectacular songs in the future. Booker admits he's new to the game, and while his guitar solos are a bit clumsy, he's written some solid songs — mid-set stunner, the down-tempo soul of "Slow Coming," was a highlight. He's also in fine company — Norton is an Animal on his small kit, able to turn what should be a tidy beat into an impressive, layered performance. (A woman next to me tried getting his attention while waving a tall can of Budweiser: "I have to marry him. Seriously.")
In August, Booker told Gambit
, "I'm still making changes to songs on the record. None of them live are the same as they are on the record. You just start playing them and change things. If I get an idea, I'll record something or write it down, but it's more about perfecting, or making the songs we have now better."
While the set missed the album's organ, the songs were cranked up to full-volume, as Booker pressed his face into the mic and stomped across the stage. For “Spoon Out My Eyeballs," Spoto traded his bass for a fiddle, while Norton handled bass drum and high-hat while playing mandolin. His interaction with the crowd was minimal: "I live not far from here," he said at one point, and he introduced album opener "Violent Shiver" as, "Here's a song." The band drew out longer pauses in that song's quiet-loud dynamic, bringing the chorus to a foot-stomping riot.
For the finale, the band performed the single "Have You Seen My Son," indulging in a too-indulgent, lengthy battle of noise and feedback at its end before Booker tossed his guitar to the stage.
New Orleans now has a couple ATO Records signees: Booker and Hurray for the Raff Raff,
enjoying critical success for its ATO Records debut Small Town Heroes
, also out this year. Booker benefited from a right place, right time moment in his arrival and his lyrically dark, blues-influenced songwriting finding a good fit in his new home. After enduring a huge tour and press cycle with an impressive debut album, Booker can come into his own.