Songwriter Benjamin Booker mixes blues, soul and punk
Singer-songwriter Benjamin Booker has been widely noted for his unusual blend of blues, soul and punk. But the seemingly disparate genres are a natural mix for Booker, running deep into his formative years.
The New Orleans resident, who plays the Magic Stick Monday, heard a lot of Motown soul around the house while growing up in Tampa, Florida. He discovered an eye-opening collision of genres when he began venturing into the punk scene at his local skate park at age 14.
"Strangely, the punk bands that I was listening to were into blues stuff," he says. "Folk-punk was really big where I grew up, so people were really into old stuff and blending it with punk and garage rock."
Booker recalls hearing one particularly educational song, "Depression," by Pensacola folk-punk band This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb.
"At the end of the song, it's like, 'Depression isn't so bad / Look what it did for Robert Johnson,' " he says. "I think I heard that when I was 14 and was like, 'Who's Robert Johnson?' And it got started from there."
Other than his electrifying genre amalgam, the most notable element of Booker's 2014 eponymous debut LP is his vocal style, which alternates between a raw, powerful howl and a gravelly murmur. But his speaking voice, gentle and slightly high-pitched, couldn't be further from his singing. He says his vocals are yet another throwback to classic blues.
"When I first started writing songs, I was probably just imitating the people I was listening to all the time," he says. "I was really into Blind Willie Johnson, who has a very strong, gravelly voice, but often he goes back and forth between that and a quiet, smoother vocal."
Booker's unique formula has found success in a remarkably short time. His self-released 2012 EP "Waiting Ones" won the endorsement of the prominent music blog Aquarium Drunkard, giving Booker his initial push toward national visibility. Last year's critically acclaimed LP was accompanied by late-night TV appearances and a tour opening for Booker's teenage guitar hero, Jack White. Booker fondly remembers White's explosive homecoming shows last summer in Detroit.
"The Detroit shows were probably me and the band's favorite shows that we've played," he says. "The Masonic Temple (is) definitely in the top three shows we've ever played."
Booker says he's already been road-testing tunes for a new album in sound checks with his band. But he's not particularly worried about clinging to his suddenly attained fame and critical adoration.
"I wasn't planning on doing this," he says. "I grew up listening to punk and stuff, so I was very happy with what I was doing at the beginning, which was just working at a record store and playing shows on the weekend. This is really nice, but if worst comes to worst I would go back to doing that and that wouldn't be a bad life."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
with Olivia Jean
8 p.m. Monday
4120 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets $15 in advance,
$18 day of show