No matter what is “in” at a given moment — hair-metal, rap-metal, boy bands, dance music, whatever — there will always be scattered men and women writing songs on guitars, pianos, or computers. They’ll be writing songs that mean something to them — regardless of what “demographic” it will appeal to — and without a doubt, these songs will connect with an audience. It may just be to the couple of hundred people who show up to their gigs at local clubs.
That’s where Benjamin is now. And you have the chance to be one of those people who sees him now, before he jumps from playing for a few hundred to playing for a few thousand (or more). Apart from the obvious benefit of being able to say “I saw him back when (a) he played small joints (b) he still had a day job (c) he wasn’t yet a beloved icon to the singer-songwriter community, (d) he still” — ah, well, you get the picture — there’s some other good reasons to catch him at his next gig at a cozy bar near you. Well, that is, if you’re a fan of music and of the English language … our man Ben knows how to use each, and how to combine them to moving effect.
And that’s the reason to check out one of Ben’s shows … today, at a hip watering hole, or a few years, or months (weeks?) down the road at a larger venue. Because, simply put, he writes great songs, and in performance — whether Ben is playing with a stripped down rock ensemble, a big backing band, accompanied by a cellist or just with his own acoustic guitar — the songs take on another dimension.
So call out for “California,” “Hollywood Arms,” “Dear Elizabeth” or “Summer’s Gone” … or for his covers of songs by the Pixies or Matthew Sweet. Or Phil Collins. Or John Denver. Itês worth mentioning that he does these songs without a drop of irony. He doesn’t care who wrote the songs, or who popularized them (or how annoying said artists were at the time of their respective ubiquity). It actually speaks volumes that he chooses covers based on what the songs say to him, not on what his choice of covers say to critics and audiences about his “hip-factor” (or lack thereof).
It shows a real commitment to songs, and a seeming blind spot to today’s music industry. That’s the kind of artist that music needs today, and that passion for the music is worth paying for, be it in a theater or in your favorite bar.
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Emotional gravity is the key to all of Wagner’s songs. Described by Entertainment Weekly as a “fuzz-guitar blast, ” Wagner churns up raucous, sing-a-long melodies. But like Ryan Adams, David Gray or Pete Yorn, he just as adeptly takes a more haunting, contemplative tact.
Wagner’s been working the New York club scene for several years and has garnered enough of a fan base to release several EP’s. The limited edition, fan-only 1999 acoustic release Legend of the Evening Star, a compilation of unreleased demos and rarities, prompted R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe to dub Wagner a “future superstar.” Notable releases include 2005’s “Heartland,” 2004’s “Love & Other Indoor Games,” 2002’s “Almost Home,” and 2001’s “Crash Site.”
“My father worked for the EPA, so I moved around like the stereotypical army ‘brat’,” Wagner says. Born in Iowa City, Iowa, Wagner lived in Washington D.C., Indianapolis, and Chicago, before his tenth birthday. After his parents divorce, Wagner, his brother and mother moved to Philadelphia. Growing up in the 80s, he vividly recalls getting his first transistor radio and listening, transfixed, to top forty radio stations in Chicago and Philly, loving everything from Hall and Oates to Phil Collins. But like James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, Wagner finally had his defining, life-changing musical epiphany.
“My big brother brought R.E.M.’s Reckoning home from college which immediately woke me up and snapped me out of my Phil Collins stupor,” Wagner laughs. “Hearing ‘So. Central Rain’ for the first time changed everything.”
Reveling in bands like the Replacements and the Pixies (Wagner even does a “twisted” cover of the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”), the young songwriter strapped on a Martin acoustic and began playing in bands in high school and later, at Syracuse University. There, Wagner fronted the funky — and popular — local alt.pop band Smoky Junglefrog, opening for majors like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Samples and Dada. Following the bands’ demise, Wagner moved to New York City and began playing a wide array of clubs like Mercury Lounge, Rockwood Music Hall, Arlene Grocery, Sin-e, and Brownie’s.