Cover story: Sarah Benck and The Robbers; UPDATED: Live Review: NOMO…

Category: Blog — @ 12:24 pm June 20, 2007

Just posted, a profile/interview with Sarah Benck and The Robbers (read it here). The story covers the band’s new album (Neighbor’s Garden), their business model (or lack of one), why American Idol sucks and where they’re headed in the future. The mantra surrounding Benck for the past few years has been, “She’s gonna be huge, just you watch.” Yet, here we are in 2007 and Benck and her band continue to play the local bar circuit, rarely leaving the city limits. We spent a lot of time talking about that during the interview, and I never got a sense that the band is pulling at the reigns to get out on the road, content to be a big fish in this small pond. Same goes for getting signed — while they’d like to be on a label, there’s either a reticence to do what it would take to make that step or a self-defeating sense that it’ll never happen. That’s somewhat unique among the bands I’ve interviewed over the years. Give them credit for being honest and knowing what they want.

About a half-dozen people read this story before it went to press. One was taken aback by the American Idol discussion — “I don’t imagine you’d ask any of the Saddle Creekers that kind of question. Did you ask her that because she’s a sweet, unassuming powerful but humble woman?” I asked her because she has what it takes to be a finalist on American Idol — the vocal chops, the looks, the personality, she’s the right age. Fact is, she almost auditioned for that INXS talent search a couple years ago, and then decided not to after reading the contract, so she’s not above doing that sort of thing. By the way, there are about four past American Idol participants currently in the Billboard top-100. She’s a pop artist playing pop music. Indie artists wouldn’t stand a chance on American Idol. Imagine Conor Oberst trying out for the show. He wouldn’t make it past the city auditions. Even the more talented Creek singers, like Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, would never make it to Los Angeles — vocally too frail, not glamorous enough, and too old (sorry ladies). Decide for yourself if Benck and Co. have the chops to make a big splash nationally by watching them perform at their CD release show this Friday night at The Waiting Room, with opener Scott Severin and his band. You can’t beat the price — it’s free.

* * *

Funny thing about last night’s NOMO show at The Waiting Room… Don’t get me wrong, it was a great show, an inspiring show — eight people on stage tearing through a set of Americanized Afrobeat that insisted — insisted! — that you move your feet. It even got me to shrug my shoulders to the beat — a miracle. The set-up was two trumpets, a baritone sax, a tenor sax/keyboardist, bass, guitar, drums and congas. The style was big-beat African riddums, tribal drums, highlife brass/woodwind chords, funk and jazz, with plenty of improvised solos strung together by enormous, rootsy, big-sky choruses, that faded and returned like ocean waves crashing against your back, covering your head, swallowing you up, eating you whole.

The band sounded great, almost too great, almost like a Soundstage session. Every instrument was mic’d and the mix was full and balanced — a huge departure from O’Leaver’s NOMO show last year, where the band could barely fit onto the “stage,” where the audience was practically on top of them, where only two or three mic’s were available. The O’Leaver’s show was like a seedy white-trash backyard party, hot and drunk, with the best band in the world playing right in front of you. It was dirty and raw and completely unexpected, and as a result, utterly remarkable.

Last night’s show, while just as musically thrilling, was, well, cleaner, nicer, more professional, more rehearsed. The mob of dirty freeway gypsies that performed at O’Leaver’s a year ago had been transformed into a first-rate stage ensemble fit for the Holland Center. All night I anticipated a repeat of how they closed their set at O’Leavers — when the band paraded into the crowd (What the hell are they doing?!) for a final cathartic moment, coaxing every drunk to sing a wordless call-and-response chorus. It happened again last night, too, but when the time came, the band announced its intentions, then strolled (not marched) to the floor. It was still the evening’s emotional high-water mark — NOMO, surrounded by an audience of drunken, suburban dancers in the dark, desperately trying to find their roots, whether it was their roots or not.

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