Musician Returns to Gainesville to Headline the Changeville Fest
By Tyler Francischine
“The primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.” James Baldwin
On a balmy February night at Bo Diddley Community Plaza, an audience of all ages and shades comes to attention as Benjamin Booker straps on his guitar. He wears a camouflage printed shirt and sports a decently high and tight fade, echoing the military themes of his latest music video “Believe.”
Benjamin Booker opens with raucous singles from his self-titled debut like “Wicked Waters” and “Have You Seen My Son.” The smoking room quality of his voice invites the audience a little closer, so as not to miss a word. The 28-year-old Los Angeles resident returned to the city in which he received an education in journalism, live music and growing up on Feb. 9 for Changeville, a not-for-profit arts and social change festival run by the UF College of Journalism and Communications.
When Ben sings, his brow furrows and his eyes squint, like he’s concentrating all the energy of his being into a single, continuous stream which escapes through his open mouth. In quiet moments, like the somber “Carry,” he sings through gritted teeth, wincing as if an exorcism is happening deep within. During fast and frenzied numbers, the performance takes on the quality of a revival. Sweat drops from his face as he bows his head between songs, but these moments of pause don’t last long. The slow, forlorn chug of “The Slow Drag Under” gives way to the gutbucket blues of “Chippewa.”
As the band begins playing “Witness,” Ben lifts his fist up in the sign for Black Power, just for a moment. He covers Arthur Russell’s “I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face” with passion before an encore of “The Future Is Slow Coming.”
But since Ben’s the type to writhe in an easy chair dying of embarrassment when scrutinized by the cult of personality, we’ll remove the bright lens of our microscope from his face and instead focus on the man’s words.
Ben has always been a writer. He received a degree in journalism from UF and wrote for The Alligator about stuff like the now-defunct experimental venue The Laboratory, a local 10-piece named Uncle Morty’s Rhythm Cream and Bands To Look Out For in 2010. He wrote much of his debut album, released in 2014 on ATO Records, while finishing up his degree in Gainesville.
For follow-up “Witness,” Ben’s writing process occurred during a burst of creative energy while living in Mexico. He had flown the Echo Park coop for some self-imposed isolation, to be the “stranger in the village” like James Baldwin before him. Perhaps reading Sartre’s “Nausea” convinced him he had outlived himself, and there were no more perfect moments to be had. At least, that’s how it made me feel, in the most comforting of ways. In any case, this was his Quarter Life Crisis, and he was not going to take it lying down. On the plane to Mexico, inspired by a line of Don DeLillo’s, Ben made a list of ten issues within his life to address. That list became the ten songs of “Witness.”
On “Overtime,” he sings “No more waking up with ‘What was I thinking.’” Ben personifies the pain and self-reflection that happens when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror at 4 a.m., on your way to rest your head after a night that lasted way too long and during which nothing particularly enriching happened. His facial expression on the DAMN.-esque album cover has similarly dissociative qualities. The more exciting life seems through the eyes of others, the emptier it can feel for the one living it.
The title track and first single of “Witness” featuring Mavis Staples, was accompanied in its 2017 NPR premiere with an essay Ben wrote about his experiences down south. He recalled an episode of violence outside a bar with some young locals. The experience proved to him that even if he attempted to avoid hearing the news, the current global state of race persists. He felt motivated to do more:
“Right now we could use a little pick-me-up/
Seems like the whole damn nation’s trying to take us down/
When your brother’s dying, mother’s crying, TV’s lying/
All the reasons in the world don’t mean shit to me now.”
The title “activist” has been slapped behind Booker’s name before, but his relationship with the movement, or any movement in general, has been tenuous at best. As he said in his talk for the 2018 frank gathering a few hours before his show, it makes him feel good to be involved — he has a long history of volunteer work — but at the end of the day, he subscribes to no ideology or faith. He follows what’s inside his heart.
The songs of “Witness” are a growing man’s attempt to navigate life and remain true to himself, even as it spins faster and faster. To return to my anthem “Overtime,” a joyous call and response that pits doubts and hopes together in the battle for the better: ”Please don’t watch me now. I’m not ready now.” But the wary responses are being exorcised as they leave our lips. The call resounds.
“You could have it all if you just try harder/ Make it to the end without going under”
feature photo courtesy of Changeville.us
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