Benjamin Booker is purely a blues musician like Mardi Gras is just a fun little New Orleans get-together.
Both are so much deeper and richer than such pithy descriptions suggest — the 25-year-old Booker is regularly tagged as some kind of 21st century bluesman; Google his name and “blues” and you’re rewarded with over a half million results — and can be really only fully understood first-hand.
The Virginia-born and New Orleans-based Booker, performing on Tuesday at Trees, directly across the street from his previous DFW gig (an October stop at Three Links), spent the better part of 75 minutes deconstructing whatever preconceived notions the couple hundred people in attendance might have brought along as they piled into the Deep Ellum venue.
Touring behind his self-titled 2014 debut, Booker, flanked by drummer Max Norton and bassist/violinist Alex Spoto, fused live-wire garage rock, a dash of Cajun soul, the wit of a stand-up comic (“I’m just gonna drink to make the electricity go away,” he joked after receiving a series of shocks from his microphone) and a raw-nerved punk bravado into something unique and captivating.
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Frenetic guitar riffs rubbed like steel wool against Booker’s scarcely decipherable, tight-lipped vocals, rendering his vivid lyrics as scalded poetry: “Retaliation/Don’t say they never told you/Shame of the nation/Kids never growing older,” he spat at one point.
That particular song — Kids Never Growing Older — along with a handful of other Booker originals culled from his first album, like Slow Coming and Have You Seen My Son, felt eerily appropriate for a part of the country still reeling from a recent spasm of racially tinged violence.
Indeed, the wisecracks (Booker suggested a speedy conclusion to his own concert, so those gathered could head down the street to Club Dada to catch some of Christopher Owens’ set) and bursts of budding rock star charisma — Booker ended his set by leaving his guitar on stage, a squall of feedback filling the room, as he hopped down into the crowd and seemed to vanish, beer in hand — masked something more compelling: a thread of genuine anger coursing through his work.
That sense of resigned fury gave his performance a surprising weight.
It was as easy to become lost in what he was doing aesthetically — the Stooges by way of Blind Willie Johnson — as it was to be struck by the clear-eyed disgust found in some of his lyrics: “At the top of the hour/Today in the news/A little girl is shot down/While tying her shoes,” Booker snarled during Slow Coming.
Even the most upbeat tune of the evening, the sweetly melodic Old Hearts, was laced with a knowing anguish: “And it’s hard to see you dying/When I’m feeling so alive,” Booker sang, his bandmates bashing away behind him.
It was a bracing juxtaposition — the man handing out beer to the crowd, signing vinyl and inviting an audience member on-stage for an amusing, impromptu Spanish lesson, contrasted with a musician ripping into bleak, roaring songs, which hit you in the gut and the heart.
Perhaps Booker keeps it light to avoid tipping over into full-blown nihilism — laughing to keep from crying.
Like the bluesmen and women he’s lumped in with, Benjamin Booker hauls pain up from the depths like water from a well.
But unlike those artists, howling into eternity about their discomfort, Booker is making his mark with a stylistic fusion befitting someone growing up in a brave new world, one nevertheless marred by strife that is all too familiar.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713