Yesterday, July 17 (just 13 days from my birthday in case anyone wants to give me presents), I was lucky enough to get to spend a great deal of time with Ben Lee. He is one of the most charming people I've ever met and a genuinely nice person, not to mention an amazingly talented songwriter and engaging performer. At the tender age of 24, Ben is already a veteran in the music world. He released his first album with the band Noise Addict in his native Australia when he was 14 and though he had a tough time getting gigs at such a young age, he quickly got some help. Nineties powerhouses Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys would demand that Ben and Noise Addict open for them during their tours down under. Yesterday, I, and all of Chicagoland got to see just how far he's come.
I first met up with Ben at the Q101 studios and sat in with him and his guitar player, McGowan. They were gearing up to record a semi-acoustic performance and interview with Robert English and Nikki for their new music show TBA. Ben's 4-song in-studio set was the first time I had heard him perform live and it sounded incredible. The chemistry between Ben and McGowan is something that needs to been seen to be fully understood, but McGowan, a solo artist himself, provides lead guitar and harmonies along with one of the purest voices I've heard. Everyone in the booth kept staying how incredible the two musicians sounded together. I wholeheartedly agreed. Ben recorded "Cigarettes Will Kill You" from Breathing Tornados, as well as two cuts from his new album, Hey You. Yes You, "Chills," and "Something Borrowed, Something Blue." The highlight however, was Ben's version of The Smiths' "Shoplifters Of The World Unite," a song Ben has been playing frequently at his shows as of late with great success. It was the first time he had ever recorded the song, which made it that much more special. An interview followed that had everyone in stitches. Ben has a tremendously strong personality and was very playful in his responses. It reminded me of watching John Lennon in those very early Beatles interviews. Ben and McGowan spent about an hour or so at the Q101 studios before heading back to the hotel to freshen up before the gig.
A few hours later, after a tasty dinner at Tuscany on Clark Street with Ben's tour manger, we headed a few doors down to the Metro and got up the stairs just in time to see Ben and McGowan take the stage. The Metro audience shuffled in throughout the first few songs of the set and eventually grew to near capacity (if not a sell out). Ben began his set with two songs from his's 1995 debut solo album, Grandpaw Would, which he recorded in Chicago. Ben has a special place in his heart for Chicago it seems, as he repeatedly mentioned how happy he was to be here and how much he loves this city. Ben has played three shows in the Windy City in less than a year and he was telling me after the show how he can really see the impact he has had here, with more and more people turning out to support him each time. In place of a full band, Ben had McGowan, who switched from guitar to keyboards multiple times throughout the evening. The stripped-down line-up was perfect. It allowed Ben to showcase his extraordinary talent as a songwriter and gave him more flexibility and spontaneity with his set list. Ben did play many of the songs from his new album, including "Running With Scissors" and my personal fav of the evening, "No Room To Bleed," for which McGowan played piano and Ben used a small drum machine. However, there were plenty of surprises. Ben played "Hard Drive," a song he wrote for Evan Dando's new CD, Baby I'm Bored, as well as a more aggressive version of "Shoplifters Of The World Unite." The BEST moment of the night though had to be Ben's solo version of "Surrender" from Chicago's very own Cheap Trick. It was very impromptu and as a result, Ben's minor technical errors made it even more endearing.
I've already said it, but almost more impressive than Ben's talent is his charming on-stage persona. He's actually the same guy on-stage and off - very likable, very inviting, and very quick witted. Multiple times throughout the night, Ben would just chat with the crowd like we were all hanging out in his family room.
After the show, Ben spent a ton of time in the Merch booth, meeting fans and signing CDs, and he actually seemed to enjoy it. Last night was the very first night Ben had copies of his new CD to sell. 120 copies were shipped directly from the plant for this show. He sold 110. Ben's remaining shows this month will be the only place to pick up a copy of the album until it streets on August 12 through F2, so if you have the means, go see him and pick up a copy. You will not be disappointed.