Seeing Ben Griffith play the Tap Exchange on Bulverde, it’s difficult not to equate getting started in the music industry with hipster panhandling. Before the show, Griffith tells me he loves jazz, funk, and improvisation, and that he has an album in the works with his band Paper Machete. But tonight, he needs to fill the Tap Exchange with four hours of (unrepeated) solo acoustic music. So he spends his first set singing arty but inoffensive covers — Elton John, Cat Stevens, Johnny Cash, Tracy Chapman — seemingly to appease the aging Stone Oak WASPs in attendance. The sun sets. He takes a few belligerent requests, and his tip jar fills.
As the night wears on, he gradually trots out his original work, revealing a love for pop underscored with funk rhythms and blues tonality. In a world saturated with John Mayers and Ben Harpers, Griffith could soon be moving his act from the bar corner to street corner, but not because of his talent. On “Back Porch Blues,” he switches between rhythm and lead with ease, never passing up a chance to trill a phrasing or throw in a quick harmony. His voice is a perfect marriage of John Popper and Rob Thomas, except when he’s possessed by the ghost of the Man in Black. On the covers, he wisely makes his voice dance around melodies his patrons have likely heard before. On originals like “Queen of My World” and “Turn the Lights On,” his voice and guitar form a dreamy union, an acoustic psychedelia.
This creates a problem for Griffith when his original songs devolve from ethereal pop into straightforward jazz sketches. By focusing on pleasing soul-crushed, northside sugar daddies and their fake-tanned, saline-upgraded fembots, he’s spending too much time on covers and not enough working on his own music. Is his craft hampered by too much school/work/Netflix instant-streaming? It’s only clear that Griffith plays no less than 10 wordless works in progress in set two, and even he seems a little bored by the end. If he’s distracted by the thought that he’s providing underappreciated ambience to middle-aged bar flies, he’s not off the mark. He doesn’t lack for skittering and engaging acoustic funk sounds — he just needs more finished songs the way a housewife needs day drinking.
In set three, harpist Justin Vasquez joins Griffith for some back-porch-style jamming, and the results are mixed. The duo slogs through Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and Blues Traveler’s “Run-Around” with renewed energy. For about 10 minutes, bar-goers snap out of their plastic ether and are engaged by Griffith and Vasquez, a couple of dudes chasing a badass jam. If Griffith can bring more finished work to the bar, he might make face-melting his main gig.
Fri. July 17
The Tap Exchange