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'Horse' Play

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Ben Kweller is hurting.

The perpetually ebullient singer-songwriter sits in a Denver hotel room with his swollen left foot propped up on pillows, and recounts how, a couple of days earlier, a Fender Twin amp fell on his flip-flopped foot an hour before he and his band headed out for a tour stop in Amarillo.

“I screamed like a fucking crazy man,” Kweller says. “They thought I was getting mugged outside. It hurt so bad, dude. My foot blew up. It was so scary to look at.”

X-rays taken the following morning found no fracture, and Kweller played most of what he describes as an “awesome gig” in Amarillo while sitting on a bench. “It’s hard to be crippled, man, hard to play rock ’n’ roll,” he says, but his tone gives little hint of discouragement.

In the title song of his 2004 album, On My Way, Kweller described a young kid who possessed a rare, Zen-like grace: “He is up for anything/ he can hang with anyone/ he still likes the things we used to think were fun.”

For many of his loyalists, the same description could be applied to BK himself. As he turns 28, Kweller — who grew up in Greenville and currently lives in Austin — shows no signs of losing his pre-pubescent sense of wonder. With his fragile, boyish tenor and willingness (make that eagerness) to express longings and enthusiasms that would embarrass the average American male, he inevitably draws comparisons to rock’s archetypal indie innocent: Jonathan Richman.

But Kweller’s songs aren’t innocent as much as they are open. His sunniness can be disarming in this reflexively cynical age, but it rarely feels naïve. And while he doesn’t wallow in sadness, he acknowledges his blue moods more often than critics would lead you to believe. Take a Kweller classic like “My Apartment.” On the one hand, he’s delivering an unironic, loving homage to his pad, but on the other, he’s describing it as “the home where I hide, away from all the darkness outside.”

While Kweller’s last three albums haven’t quite matched the perfect blend of wide-eyed pop, slacker rock, and folkie introspection that characterized his 2002 breakthrough Sha Sha, he’s challenged himself with each release: The live, full-band attack of On My Way; the layered, BK-plays-everything finesse of 2006’s Ben Kweller; and the pedal-steel-flavored country of his latest, Changing Horses.

Since the Horses sessions came in the wake of his 2007 move to Austin after nine years in New York, it would be easy to view the album’s twangy vibe as a reaction to the Lone Star State, but Kweller says that’s not the case.

“I tend to write about things when I’m not near them,” he says. “So a lot of the Horses material was written in New York, just sort of reminiscing about my past and about the South.”

He and wife Liz decided to leave New York shortly after their son, Dorian, celebrated his first birthday.

“He wanted to run around everywhere, and we were like, ‘Man, we’ve got to get out of here,’” he says. “We both just loved Austin. We loved San Antonio, too, actually. We thought about San Antone for a little bit, but we have more friends in Austin.”

Kweller was something of a child prodigy, jamming on drums at the age of seven with his physician dad. His father had gone to school in Bethesda, Maryland, with E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren, and played drums in teenage Lofgren projects such as the Radical Five and the Family Portrait. A pre-teen Kweller sent his early cassettes to Lofgren (“because he was my only contact in the biz”), who helped his band, Radish, get a record deal.

Kweller’s 3-year-old son is continuing the family fascination with percussion, jumping behind the drum kit whenever he sees Dad pick up a guitar. Among Kweller cultists, however, the most celebrated member of his family is his octogenarian grandmother, Marylin “Bubbie” Kweller, who starred in the 2007 video for “Penny on the Train Track,” giddily dancing around a gym in her jazzercise leotard.

“I always send her my albums when they’re done, and she always tells me her favorite song,” Kweller says. “So for that album, she called me and said, ‘Benjamin, I love that song, and whenever I listen to it, I get out my duster and start dancing around the house to it.’”

When Kweller and his label reps at ATO Records mulled potential singles for the album, he told them that story, and they insisted that his grandmother appear in the clip

Kweller says: “She went to her dentist the next day `after it aired`, and said, ‘I was on MTV! I was on TRL!’ She loves being famous.”

LIVE MUSIC
Ben Kweller
8pm Wed, Jun 24
White Rabbit
2410 N. St. Mary’s
$15 advance;
$17 day of show
(210) 737-2221
sawhiterabbit.com


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