Take no prisoners, or in a rush to get back to the tour bus? Brendan Benson’s blistering show at the Velvet Jones on Friday night raised just those sorts of questions. How else to interpret this piledriver set, a dozen or so singalong would-be-hits with hardly a breath between, let alone a hello howdyado? Leav ’em stunned, seems to be Benson’s motto.
On his latest record, Mr. Benson wraps himself in all sorts of lush arrangements, with a wide palette of instruments at his disposal. Live, with Mr. Benson backed up by three smokin’ hot musicians, the songs get returned to their post-punk roots, less Wings and more This Year’s Model.
Mr. Benson has been better known in recent years as co-conspirator in The Raconteurs, with Jack White. But years before that, he was the golden boy of pop-rock who got the shaft from no-nothing record execs after a glorious 1996 debut, “One Mississippi.” No Raconteur songs on Friday night, but the band channeled some of that raucous White energy, while Benson kept his voice at his usual high, plaintive tone.
Starting off with “Folk Singer,” an un-folky opening salvo with descending, Jeff Lynne-style melodies, Mr. Benson made it all about the guitar, with jagged chords matched by the ball of energy that was lead guitarist Mark Watrous.
Soon Mr. Benson was into the new album “My Old, Familiar Friend,” and to these ears, the best tracks are better than the older material, though his fans may disagree. “Eyes on the Horizon” and “Poised and Ready” both ended in brief jams not to be found on their studio counterparts, as the band stretched out a little bit before Mr. Benson snapped the songs shut.
And then we didn’t hear the new stuff for quite some time. It was instead time to check in with all the songs that coulda-woulda been hits: “Sitting Pretty,” “Cold Hands Warm Heart” (requested by the tall blonde in the front row and immediately played – how about that?), “Metarie” and the smart “Alternative to Love.”
Trading electric for acoustic for the second half of the set didn’t affect the rest of the band, who rocked on regardless, including steadfast bass player Jerry Reynolds and exciting drummer Brad Pemberton, who has played for Ryan Adams.
Mr. Benson rarely spoke between numbers, though he did stop to point out Velvet Jones’s odd barrier between the dance floor and the rest of the club.
Fifteen numbers in, he stopped, bid us goodnight and disappeared with the band. The crowd slowly took to stomping for an encore, really working for the band’s return when it did not seem certain.
But at last they did for a series of songs. “Garbage Day” has pop smarts all over it, and one was glad it made it into the evening’s set. Benson ended with two covers that might explain where he’s coming from. One was Graham Nash’s “Better Days,” which Mr. Benson has covered for a Nash tribute album, listing it his second favorite song from the writer. Mr. Benson didn’t alter the arrangement, keeping Mr. Nash’s slow build-up of voice, guitar, piano and drums. Instead he upped the distortion and tempo and built toward a cathartic release not in the original. He ended with a song he said he’s only recently come to love: Superdrag’s “Sucked Out” from the same year as Mr. Benson’s debut. It was like a checklist of ideas that Benson has grabbed and run with ever since, an alternative history of sorts. And just as it seemed Mr. Benson had loosened up, he was gone again, this time for good.