Saturday, December 06, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ben Watt!

There’s always time and space to write a little bit more about Ben Watt and/or Tracey Thorn, but today the focus must be on Ben, for two reasons: It’s his birthday (happiest of birthdays, Ben!), and because after nearly 25 years of being a devotee of all things Everything but the Girl, I finally got to see half of the band perform live on Thursday, the fourth of December, 2014. Ben brought his one-man show to the extremely intimate venue of the Cactus Café in Austin, Texas, and it was easily one of the most rewarding “concerts” I’ve ever been to. It was a perfect show - certainly as perfect as a solo Ben Watt, touring his solo album Hendra, could possibly have been, anyway. He played the bulk of the new album, three EBTG tunes, and a pair from his first and only other solo record, North Marine Drive, which dates all the way back to 1983.

But the night wasn’t just about music, it was equally about Watt recounting memories and telling the stories of how all these songs came to be. As a musician who’s also written two books, Ben’s storytelling prowess may be on its way to equaling his musicianship, as he took time out between each and every tune to weave tales of days gone by – some happy, some painful, all poignant. The latter assertion should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed his music over the years. Ben’s music, Tracey’s music, and the music they’ve created together has always been there for me when I needed it, and though it doesn’t have all of life’s answers, it has more often than not seemed to be asking the same questions as I, at whatever point in my life I was listening. It has always felt as though we were on the same page, and there really isn’t any other body of musical work that I can say that about.

Hendra is an insightful and heartfelt work, and one that, while I enjoyed a great deal prior to hearing him play it live, has now moved up to transcendent. There was just something about seeing and hearing Ben play, for instance, the tune “Forget,” mere feet away from me, that made its messages about regret and loss all the more important. Ben, at one point during the show, copped to the fact that the songs that make up Hendra are perhaps not exactly life affirming, happy-go-lucky tunes. But he insisted that what the album was really about is resilience, and how important it was for listeners to feel that within its ten songs. As I get older, and life’s disappointments stack up, I can think of no other message I’d rather hear.

The idea of releasing a solo album 30 years after the previous one must have been a daunting one for Watt, especially with the immense popularity of EBTG in between. Would people show up? Would anybody care? We did and we do. Watt was generous enough to stick around and chat with the diehards after the show, which made me a bit nervous. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been disappointed by meeting a hero (there are countless talented assholes out there), and the last thing I wanted was to in any way be let down by a guy who’s been half responsible for some of my favorite music ever recorded. But I wasn’t. Ben was as genuine and warm in person as anyone could possibly hope for. 

One of the lyrics on Hendra, from the tune “Young Man’s Game,” is “I’m not as good as I used to be.” I beg to differ, Mr. Watt. You may, in fact, actually be better. I all but begged you on Thursday night to keep doing this, and I want to reiterate that here: Please continue on with this second (third?) act of your career. We need you to give us comfort in the late night hours when everyone else has gone to sleep, or when we’re in the kitchen doing the dishes and everything seems so very ordinary. We need you to keep telling your melancholy stories and weaving your extraordinary truths. Simply, life is made a little bit easier with Ben Watt music playing over its soundtrack.