Live: The Posies/Brendan Benson/Aqueduct

ARGENTUM — 11/27/10: I went to the Posies/Brendan Benson/Aqueduct show not really knowing what to expect, and the sparse, rather lifeless crowd that was standing about at Argentum wasn’t very encouraging. When I arrived, David Terry, the creative force behind Aqueduct, was onstage behind his keyboard, along with his guitarist and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies filling in on bass.

My initial reaction had me casting my lot with the general mood of the crowd, which seemed noncommittal at best. But Terry was clearly having fun onstage, and the 8-bit, DIY sound of his synth was hard to resist, as was the massive amount of sound coming from just three guys — assisted by a bone-rattling drum track. Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Terry relocated to Seattle, where he gained enough popularity that he started opening for acts like Modest Mouse and fellow Oklahomans the Flaming Lips, with whom he shares more than just common geographic origins.

His music has some of the same quirky intelligence shot through with optimism, along with plenty of odd, synthesized buzzes, warbles, and fuzz. Terry’s passion and good spirits won me over more than his music, at least at first, along with his easy banter with the crowd. After a while his funky beats and the amazing dynamics of his live sound caught my attention, and his joyous cover of local act the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” put a grin on my face. (If you want to hear another Aqueduct cover, check out his website for a free download of a pleasingly warped and genre-defying version of Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”) Terry’s music was fun and witty, an appealing concoction of pop hooks mixed in with his own unique twist on things. Best of all, he’s having fun making the music and we get to share in his delight.

A quick set change brought Brendan Benson onstage — his slight frame would have made it easy to mistake him for a kid, if it weren’t for the unkempt hair and scraggly beard. A multi-instrumentalist with a gift for songcraft and catchy lyrics and melodies, Benson’s music has an endearing quality that carries the listener along while maintaining its indie cred.

A member of The Raconteurs, along with fellow Michigander Jack White, Brendan’s solo work has a sweeter sound that reminds me more of what Elliott Smith would have sounded like if he were happy than it does any of his neighbors in the power-pop genre where he’s often placed. Perhaps that’s painting with too broad a brush; either way, Benson is a skilled songwriter, and while his music has an upbeat appeal, it isn’t one-dimensional.

Songs like “A Whole Lot Better,” “Cold Hands (Warm Heart),” and “Feel Like Taking You Home” share a darker side of ambivalence and unrest, particularly the last song, which has a sinister, almost threatening rhythm throughout and chilling synth tones that set a disturbing mood. Where “Feel Like Taking You Home” is overshadowed by misgiving, “A Whole Lot Better” is an infectious gem of a song with a refrain (“I fell in love with you / And out of love with you / And back in love with you / All in the same day”) that’s nearly impossible to resist, and Brendan rocked the house with it.

Sadly, some of the warmth of Brendan’s recorded sound was lost with Argentum’s sound system, but even that shortcoming couldn’t hold back a song like “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” and its starting keyboard hook (played by none other than Ken Stringfellow) that firmly plants the song in your brain and leaves it there for days to come. It’s a happy-sounding song about the pain of a possible break-up and it’s one of Brendan’s best songs to date. Another stand-out song from the show was “Metarie,” from his 2002 album Lapalco. A slow threnody about rejection with a sharp edge of defiance, it’s an arresting song and an effective counterpoint that held the audience briefly spellbound.

Topping off the night’s billing, The Posies hit the stage in support of their recent release Blood/Candy, a worthy album without one disappointing or throw-away track. Emerging from the ’90s grunge scene in Seattle, The Posies headed off in a completely different direction, and their latest album is solid evidence that they are still very much their own band, with a sound that continues to evolve and never repeats itself but which still retains their signature hooks and crisp melodies. Thirty years of playing and musical antecedents as broad as Big Star, XTC, Buddy Holly, and ’60s folk-rock a la The Mamas and the Papas give The Posies a rich sound you can mine for all sorts of aural delights.

Ken Stringfellow was of course back on stage (for his third appearance), this time on rhythm guitar and keyboards, with John Auer on lead guitar, Matt Harris on bass, and Darius Minwalla on drums. They played plenty of songs from the new album but also served up a generous portion of their back catalog. “Glitter Prize,” probably the most straightforward pop song on Blood/Candy, showcased the shining clear harmonies that Auer and Stringfellow produce seemingly without effort. Their voices combine almost chemically, synthesizing into some new and amazing thing that has a life of its own.

“Cleopatra Street,” a fond reminiscence about walking down a particular stretch of road, evoked the feelings of the circumstance it describes, making it a perfect song to have in your head when remembering good times. They did a kick-ass version of “Licenses to Hide,” a retro romp of a song about aging that’s almost a show tune and that owes a great deal to songs like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Early in the set they worked in a frenzied, no holds-barred cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Green Eyes” that would have made Bob Mould and company proud. Other highlights of the show included “Plastic Paperbacks,” a song with echoes of the Stranglers, “Flavor of the Month,” “Dream all Day,” “Coming Right Along,” and “Suddenly Mary.”

John Auer hit his stride early on, burning through guitar licks or wandering back to his amps to produce piercing waves of feedback and fuzz. Occasionally he would walk to the very edge of the stage and hold his guitar out over the audience, both an object of worship and the source of musical manna from heaven to share freely with anyone who would approach. The rest of the band was in fine form, as well, with Minwalla laboring sweatily over his drum kit, Harris standing coolly in that signature aloofness bassists seem to learn in bass-playing school somewhere, and Stringfellow striding all over the stage singing his heart out, the emotional center of the band.

The Posies put on a great show, and managed to get enough energy going in the lackluster crowd that they were convinced to come back onstage for a quick encore. With luck, they’ll feel inspired to come back to Houston someday, and if they do it’s a show you don’t want to miss. END

Live review by . Live review posted Tuesday, December 14th, 2010. Filed under Features, Live Reviews.

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2 Responses to “Live: The Posies/Brendan Benson/Aqueduct”

  1. Joel on December 14th, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    It’s a shame more people didn’t go to this show. Personally, I blame the promoter, well lack of promotion. This should have been a packed show!

  2. Austin on December 14th, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    While I’m sure Aqueduct probably appreciates the nice review, it does contain some factual inaccuracies regarding the band and show. Your writing makes it seem like the band was a keyboard-guitar-bass trio; whereas I witnessed them as a keyboard-bass-drums trio with Mr. Terry trading between keyboard and guitar.

    And while Ken Stringfellow is an amazingly accomplished musician, I don’t think that he should be confused with Aqueduct bassist, Matthew Nader, who ACTUALLY was playing the Aqueduct show. Both are disturbingly thin and posses killer rock moves, but that’s where their similarity ends. Ken only played bass with Brendan Benson and The Posies that night.

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