He’s an insect magnet. He’s a chatterbox. Oh, and he may or may not be John Lennon.
Last Wednesday, a tiny crowd filled the backroom of Schubas to discover that Ben Kweller is as full of fun facts as he is songs. His bantering, placed between crowd favorites and live rarities, was almost as entertaining as his music, if not more so.
The show opened with the shout-chorused “I Need You Back,” and Napoleon Dynamite-esque hand-gestured “My Apartment,” both off 2004’s On My Way (ATO). It was immediately apparent how bizarrely small the audience was; with silence during songs in lieu of typical far-off rustling or cheering.
Originally planning on turning down a Vanity Fair photo shoot in New York that occurred that morning – “Fuck this, I’ve got a sold out show at Schubas!” was his excuse – he caved after hearing an “amazing photographer” would be shooting it. Misplacing her name, Kweller stammered, “Leibovitz?” to which the dumfounded crowd shouted back, “ANNIE?!” the famous artist’s first name.
When Kweller Wikipedia-ed Annie Leibovitz, he found out that she also shot John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s iconic cover of Rolling Stone on the day he was, well, shot. Coincidentally, the recording studio Lennon was at before the murder is where Kweller recorded two of his albums, and the date Dec. 8, is also when Kweller’s parents learned they were pregnant with him.
“I’m not sayin’ I’m John Lennon and shit, but there’s a chance,” he mused to the crowd before teasingly dedicating “Walk On Me” to the photographer and the Beatle. From there on out, it was mostly music. “Family Tree,” off 2002’s Sha Sha emphasized the unresponsiveness of the small crowd. Be it collective intimidation of being close to him, idol worship or a nervousness of being the first to break the silence, tiny lulls during each song were left uncomfortably quiet.
But, maybe silence is golden. With fans whispering the lyrics of a solo acoustic “On My Way,” it felt like a song session ’round the campfire at “Kweller Overnight Camp.” Don’t believe me? As the thought popped into my head, he ended the song with a bit of “Dueling Banjos.” Hmm.
The rest of the show was rounded out by Kweller bringing a poet named Thax onstage to recite “Ben Kweller,” an obscure poem about radishes, and the almost-never-played “Ann Disaster” which finally got the crowd to start dancing. When Kweller returned for an encore performance of my personal favorite “Falling,” the building got a better view than we did because the piano was facing a wall.
“I wrote this when I first fell in love with my lady,” Kweller said while introducing “Lizzy,” an acoustic guitar ballad dedicated to a couple in the audience celebrating their anniversary. After singing the heartfelt chorus, “Lizzy, I’ll write, I’ll sing, telegraph, telegram, telephone, tellin’ you, I’ll be home soon,” Kweller stopped dead and began chuckling, explaining that there was an ant crawling on him. “How the hell did it get to me?” he laughingly pondered, adding, “Maybe it’s his anniversary!”
Finishing with “Wasted and Ready,” Kweller’s night was to be filled with tequila shots and friends. And while he came from New York to Chicago for the show and stayed for the liquor, we came for his punchy verses and irresistible choruses, and stayed for what he said, not what he sang.