Ben Weaver/Nathaniel Seer; September 12, 2009; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music
Seldom have I pulled an about face with a musician as quickly as I did with Ben Weaver. I went from finding him awkward and kinda boring to this being perhaps my most anticipated house concert this year. It’s certainly not Weaver’s fault, he’d played some good shows under tough conditions. No, it definitely wasn’t him, it was me. I’d missed the subtlety of his songs, the near rhymes and the clever turns of phrase. He’s an intriguing storyteller, but I never would have known it seeing him in places like Café Montmartre and the Frequency where it was so loud I had to concentrate to hear. In fact, only an early show at the latter venue was quiet enough that I could actually appreciate his songs, and started to think that he would be an excellent candidate for a house concert.
Setting it up was even easier that I had expected. I sent an e-mail to his manager and got an enthusiastic response within the hour. I already had Nathaniel Seer booked for tonight, given the crowd that had been at his last show in Madison I would need someone else on the bill to get some people out. It was a good idea, but it didn’t result in the crowd I had hoped for. There were maybe a dozen people in the crowd for what turned out to be a pretty terrific show. Still, watching the DVD of the show, it sounded like much more than that as everyone who was there really enjoyed the show.
Seer showed up sick and on the verge of losing his voice. He assured me that he had made it through his show last night and that he would be able to again tonight. He introduced himself to the audience and then promised he would not talk any more during his set to conserve his voice. That was a hard promise to stick to, and he ended up talking more than he meant to during his short opening set. He played a good show, only really struggling during the last song, but claimed he had to finish it because he really liked singing that song. The thing is, it didn’t really sound like him. On record and the first time I saw him, his voice was amazing, a sort of Jeff Buckley but without all that falsetto I find so difficult to listen to. Tonight, he was slightly less ethereal, missing the grand nature he usually has.
I let Seer off without doing an encore, but I wasn’t going to go easy on Weaver. I sent him back up to the stage with a request. “White Snow,” the first song on The Ax in the Oak, gets better every time I listen to it, though I kept getting hung up on one line. “You get one wish for every dot on the June bug’s wing,” he says before continuing, “There’s only one dot on the one I’m holding, why would I waste it on you?” It’s a great line, except what we call June bugs don’t have any spots. He explained in the introduction that he had gotten the line from a friend in Berlin where they call ladybugs June bugs. He agreed to play it easily enough, I didn’t find out until after that he didn’t really want to, saying he doesn’t like to play loud songs solo because he doesn’t like to call attention to himself. When you are the only person on stage, it seems inevitable.
The rest of the set he played what he wanted to, drawing heavily from his most recent release The Axe in the Oak. “Anything with Words” was probably the highlight, but “Hawks and Crows” and “Red, Red Fox” were also pretty great. We also got a healthy dose of banjo songs, just as I said I was hoping for in my introduction. The mournful instrument seems a perfect match for his downtrodden heroes, and reinforces the feeling that he actually exists somewhere in the past when people took walks in the woods for entertainment and actually cared about nature. A feeling furthered by his reading from a book of poems later in the set, a book which he claimed had been outselling his CDs. “I’m not actually sure where the guitar came in, it’s always been about the words for me,” he said after a few well-received selections.
As with many of my shows lately I wish more people would have been there, but I have no doubt that much like Ha Ha Tonka people will be telling me they can’t believe they missed Ben Weaver in my basement. Hopefully he’ll be back.