Saturday Night: The Posies And Brendan Benson At Groundhall
Photos by Jason Wolter
The Posies, Brendan Benson Groundhall November 27, 2010
"Do you guys remember the '90s?" queried Posies guitarist Jon Auer to Saturday's Groundhall crowd. A moderate cheer proved the audience not only remembered the decade, but also eagerly supported its recent revival (if only in the form of the era's "it" band reunion tours).
Vintage alt-rock permeated the show, co-headlined by songsmith Brendan Benson. Though Benson is undoubtedly best known for his recent collaboration with White Stripes front man Jack White in the Raconteurs, he has steadily released a stream of solo efforts since 1996 debut One Mississippi.
Detroit native and Nashville transplant Benson tapped into his fellow headliners to assemble his back-up band. The Posies are no strangers to this role - In the mid-'90s, Big Star's Alex Chilton recruited both Auer and Posies frontman Ken Stringfellow for that band's reformation, and Stringfellow also often lends his musical hand on tour with R.E.M.
Benson's boyish good looks disguised the fact that he's actually a seasoned musician, backed by nearly 15 years of solo work. "I love Texas," Benson declared before hesitantly elaborating, "I'm one of the few."
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Unsurprisingly, confessing such a sentiment to a Houston crowd only sparked awkward chuckles and instant boos. Just two songs into his set and Benson already had to win us back over.
Known for his consumate power-pop melodies, Benson weaved through his catalogue, pulling heavily from this year's My Old, Familiar Friend with "Garbage Day" and "I'll Never Tell," as well as 2002's Lapalco with "Good To Me" and the singsong "Metarie." Plucking the Posies as his backing band certainly didn't hurt his cause.
While Benson tuned his guitar, Auer jokingly filled the between-song silence by playing the opening notes of "Stairway to Heaven," an act that may have ignited a giggle from the crowd, but caused Benson to respond, "I can't believe you just tarnished our set with 'Stairway!'"
Though amused, Aftermath shared Benson's objection, as Led Zeppelin had no business making an appearance in the songwriter's bubblegum-tinged set.
For those only familiar with Benson via the hard-rocking Raconteurs, few likenesses exist between his solo work and he and White's far hardier blues-rock band. As a solo artist, Benson instead adheres to lighthearted pop songs backed by candid lyrics of failed relationships.
Alternative to Love single "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" evoked some crowd murmur, likely due to its appearance on a recent iPod commercial. A little research taught us Benson's songs have also served as the soundtrack to Saturn, Ford and Sears spots.
Ultimately, this discovery might best sum up Benson's sound - listenable accompaniment to a commercial. As Benson closed his set with Friend's "A Whole Lot Better," Aftermath found ourselves itching for the distortion pedal.
Enter the Posies, a band working overtime.
Just 30 minutes after Benson's set, they returned to the stage for Round Two. It was immediately clear that the Posies hadn't tired from their previous set, as shown by their strong vocal harmonies and sprightly stage presence.
The Bellingham, Wash. (aka Seattle-ish) natives emerged onto the alt-rock scene in the early '90s, joining the erupting brotherhood of the region's grunge artists - sort of. Though the Posies were often grouped in with the grunge movement, their music didn't exactly mesh with the genre, clean recordings and prominent vocal harmonies separating the band from their grittier contemporaries.
Though the band drifted off the alt-rock radar around 1997, they sporadically produced albums (1998's Success, 2005's Every Kind of Light). Seventh LP Blood/Candy came out earlier this year.
The new "Plastic Paperbacks" opened the set, followed by fellow newbie "Cleopatra Street," both songs featured a likeness to the Posies sound introduced to us on previous releases. Stringfellow faithfully backed the band's new record, confidently describing it to the audience as "patently kick-ass." In visibly good spirits, the band joked with one another between songs, a refreshing (and rare) gesture to witness in veterans.
Splitting vocal duties throughout the set, Stringfellow and Auer led the band, including bassist Matt Harris and drummer Darius Minwalla, through tracks spanning the Posies' 20-plus year history, including popular hits from the 1993's Frosting on the Beater such as "Solar Sister," "Flavor of the Month" and "Dream All Day." Each song was a fusion of crunchy distortion, pacified by the Posies' trademark harmonies.
Props to loyal Posies fans who rose from their lingering post-Thanksgiving turkey hangovers to see their first Houston performance in years, but as the band left the stage, it seemed many in the audience didn't know proper encore etiquette - perhaps they were just overly polite - lingering patiently (and quietly) for the band's return. Such stillness didn't seem to faze the Posies, as they eventually trudged back onstage for the third time Saturday night, inviting the remaining crowd to "huddle around" for a few more songs.
Closer "Coming Right Along" unveiled the gloomier dream-rock side of the otherwise poppy alt-rock band. Reduced to just piano and Auer's hazy vocals and spacey guitar tones, the song fashioned an intimate ambiance, a departure from the encore's punchy rock predecessors.
Overall, the Posies' set offered a pleasing revisiting - rediscovery, even - of a band that was often overlooked in their heyday. What stood out most about their 90-minute set Saturday was that although Groundhall was sparsely populated, the Posies performed as if they were playing to a packed arena.
Such spirit is impossible not to appreciate.
Personal Bias: Aftermath usually loathes synchronized stage antics, but found ourselves not only enjoying Stringfellow's untiring Van Halen-esque jumps, but wanting to craft a drinking game inspired by them: "Did he just jump again? Drink!"
The Crowd: Predominantly fortysomething males, endearingly (and unsuccessfully) trying to disguise their keenly nostalgic sway.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Eat the 72 oz. steak!"
Random Notebook Dump: I can't hear the Posies' "Coming Right Along" without recalling The Basketball Diaries. It's mostly a good thing.
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