Benjamin Wagner’s Caffe Lena Debut

Benjamin Wagner may just be the nicest guy in the Capital District.

For some reason, he just exudes friendliness, onstage and off. The 22-year-old, a recent transplant to Saratoga Springs, does not look like the typical introspective songer/songwriter type. For one thing, except for the lack of a rich tan, he could easily pass for a West Coast beach bum. For another, onstage at Caffe Lena on May 2, he wore no black.

His music, though, is intriguing. On stage alone, he was somehow able to conjur up other instruments. Hi sguitar work hinted at a larger sound, and I could almost almost here a bass here, a cello there, a full band backing him up during the choruses.

It’s not especially surprising, though, as Wagner did lead a band, Smokey Junglefrog, back in Syracuse that was nominated for a SAMMY (Syracuse Area Music Award) for Best Alternative Band in 1992. Releasing a solo album, “Always Almost There”, just four months after the band’s breakup, Wagner earned himself a nomination for Best New Artist at this year’s SAMMYs. The show at Lena was a release party for his new album, “Bloom.”

Although he’s new to the area, Wagner has already hooked up with Carl Landa, who co-produced the album with Wagner. The result is the first album from a locally-based male folk singer/songwriter type that I’ve heard since moving to the area myself, and it’s a darned good first impression.

It’s impossible not to compare Wagner to others who have mined the same musical vein — elements of everyone from James Talor, Michael Penn, Jeffrey Gaines and Suzanne Vega are all present. His voice, as opposed to the power vocals that many young rockers go for, is pitched a little higher, but still carries a richness. Both strong and delicate, Wagner’s vocals convey an emotional sincerity of love and loneliness that is comparable to the power with which Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan conveys his alienation to thousands of plaid clad disenfranchised youth.

Wagners vocals, though, are even more remarkable for the message they carry. As a lyricist, he’s on the scale of Tina Ward for sheer pleasure and peerless for the way that his words paint a picture and set a scene.

On “Bloom,” Wagner utilizes the services of Carl Landa and Mike Migliozzi on purcussion, Raphael Chevalier on violin, Nate Barr on cello, and Eric Gilman as a second guitarist, but on stage he appears alone with his guitar. The accompanying instruments, though, are not missed in the solo setting.

Reading bit of poetry between songs (the albums title comes from an Emily Dickinson piece, excerpted in the CD’s liner notes), Wagner sets himself up as a sensitive 90s thinking man. “I need to leave room for bitterness,” he remarked at one point, “it’s not [an emotion that] I like.”

And therein lies Wagner’s greatest fault. He sometimes comes across as too sensitive, too nice to be the songrwriter poet that he seems to be. “I will raise my voice/ I will raise my voice” he resolves on “Ribbon,” but never does. He makes up for the lack of cynicism with sensitivity, but the most effective (and ultimately, most popular) singer/songwriters all temper their optimism with a cynical streak (or vice-versa). Take Beck’s “Loser” — “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me,” or Jefrrey Gaines’ “Hero in Me” — “There’s got to be some hero in me.” The production of the CD, and the straining tones of the cello add an undertone that doesn’t come across in his live performance.

Ultimately, Wagner’s lack of a mean streak was hardly noticeable until I realized how happy I was feeling (not an emotion I expected from the show). Pop singers base their entire careers on making people forget their troubles for a couple of hours; it would be a shame if Benjamin Wagner’s career faltered because he’s accomplished what no one else has.

The Source (Albany, NY)

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