With a rasping, moonshine voice that sounds like it was suckled on cigarettes and smoky peach cobbler, Benjamin Booker spat wailing soul into a full house at T.T. the Bear's in Cambridge on Wednesday night.
His upper-lip draped over the head of the microphone and his front teeth scraping at its unforgiving wire mesh, the 25-year-old from New Orleans howled along with the stormy fall weather. The hour and a half-long show, fueled by Pabst Blue Ribbon and sweat, flashed by as quickly as the lightning beyond the bar’s grimy door.
Booker crooned, stomped and rolled his eyes back in his head. His dress, his moves and his sound were all tributes to bygone eras. His crisp white button-down and pointed leather shoes oozed the class of old Hollywood, while his left leg channeled Elvis as it skittered away with an agenda of its own. His most defining feature of all, his voice, crackled like a cassette tape that was left out to bake on the dashboard of a car in a southern August.
Adding to the din were drummer Max Norton, of The Beauvilles, and bassist Alex Spoto, both of whom have been touring with Booker since the summer festivals. The sweaty Norton was nearly as entertaining to watch as Booker on stage—he hammered away with one drumstick while simultaneously smashing the cymbals with a tambourine throughout most of the show. He moonlighted as an electric mandolinist during some songs, always multitasking with a foot pedal bass drum.
Torn between tear-welling and arm-flailing, the crowd lapped at this warm Louisiana respite from the wind and rain. They spastically danced to the unruly chords of “Always Waiting,” and swayed in commiseration to the twangs of Booker’s lonely guitar in “Slow Coming.” Then they screamed along to Booker’s most recognizable song, “Violent Shiver,” with particular emphasis on the growled line, “Fuckin’ up on a five year bender.”
The diverse show would have been an impressively constructed set for an artist with a large discography to pull from, but Booker was working off one album—his self-titled debut that came out in September. He banged through the entire record, with two new pieces thrown in as the band jumped around the track list.
At a lull in the show Booker, eyes glazed over from five or six cups of beer, gestured up at the enormous disco ball mounted on the ceiling of T.T.’s.
“How about some disco up in here?” he asked the anonymous lighting technician in the back of the room. Obediently the huge ball began its slow spin, its soothing cyclical motion clashing with the brash drums and roaring Booker for the rest of their set.
All too soon the band waltzed off the stage with a few salutes. Quelling anxiety over the possibility of an encore, Booker left collateral onstage in the form of his guitar, which was clipped and blaring at full volume.
Several earsplitting minutes later, with fresh PBRs in hand, Booker, Norton and Spoto trooped back onstage for a foot-stomping, glass-shattering performance of “Have You Seen My Son,” another single off the album and a tribute to the gospel tradition of the South. Norton was sweating through his jeans at this point, standing up to get more power behind his two-armed rhythmic pound on the drums, while Booker writhed flat on his back on the floor, clutching his guitar to his chest.
It was a low-budget marvel, a three-man, seven-instrument cacophony of chaotic bluesy folk-punk that made you want to grab a banjo and pick away in a frenzy for a while, before brutally smashing its guts out on the floor in a gleeful celebration. It was a no-hold-back, unadulterated rollercoaster from grief to ecstasy and back again. It was the kind of show that made the sweaty guy in the second row yell, to no one in particular, “This is fucking it! This is what we’ve been missing!”
“I would listen to the radio, if I liked songs produced by 40-year-olds in high tech studios,” Booker crooned out in the sticky slow “Spoon Out My Eyeballs.” With a confidence brought on by early success and excessive skill, he seemed to agree with the sweaty guy in the second row.
It’s a zing of a line, and you can’t help but think that he’s right. With the digital age of auto-tuning and the tendency towards stagnant, clinically replicable pop, Booker’s messy shredding and imperfect rasp are a warm breath of fresh southern wind. His music is a cathartic explosion of raw emotion, ranging from misery to sheer throw-your-head-back-and-scream joy. So yeah, sweaty guy in the second row—you nailed it. This is exactly what we’ve been missing.