In Heavy Syrup, Wagner Yo-Yos Back Into Saratoga

The last time 25-year-old guitarist, singer/songwriter Benjamin Wagner played at Caffe Lena he says, “people felt I was too ernest.”

On Sunday, he will appear with A Pop Band to emphasize that his heart is musically in the groove.

The former city resident, Uncommon Grounds employee and Saratogian freelance writer returns to promote his new CD that took 27 round-trip bus tickets and 11 pounds of Twizzlers to produce.

A founding member of the popular Syracuse band Smokey Junglefrog, Wagner relocated to Saratoga a number of years ago on the heels of the band’s demise. Still “getting over the band and interested in doing the solo thing,” as he puts it, Wagner worked with local pianist Carl Landa to put out “Bloom” in May, 1994.

Working the coffeehouse circuit to promote “Bloom,” Wagner felt unable to create or sustain the sort of excitement that comes from performaing as part of a band. “I’m into giving goosebumps, and it’s harder to do that playing alone,” he refelects.

Currently a producer for MTV News Online, Wagner says matter-of-factly that he has “no grand illusions of how working here (MTV) is going to help my career, it makes no difference. I’m just slogging it out like everybody else.”

But progress is being made, having played “plenty of holes in the wall to get where we are,” Wagner says. He and A Pop Band recently made the rounds through fabled NYC clubs like CB’s 313, and The Fort at the Sidewalk Cafe.

Deeming the latter the “epicenter of the anti-folk movement in the East Village, Wagner found that gig to be especially significant. “We are an acoustic group but we don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a folk act. We groove man, and get really loud.”

Touring in support of his fourth solo release, “Out Of Your Head,” Wagner muses, “this is the only record that matters.” Comprized of a dozen Wagner originals, one listen to OOYH illuminates the group aesthetic that supports that record’s subtitling of “acoustic pop in heavy syrup.”

Hinting at many influences but speaking directly to none, OOYH shows Wagner as an economical writer who makes efficient use of time and space. He attributes this to two things: “For one, I write most of my tunes on the guitar by myself and bring them to the band, and secondly, I’m a rhythm guitarist. Playing those same chords over and over to me is somewhat boring. With the band, everything is interesting.”

Wagner’s lyrics are full of twists and turns, running the gamut from serious to irreverent, gregarious to introspective but remaining literate all the while. He notes that lyrically he is “concise by virtue of loving words and working with them on a daily basis.”

“Corporate” finds him pondering, “How do you fit into the food chain?” while “Brave & Stupid” recalls a failed relationship, pinpointing their differences with the very telling line, “You speak in pictures/I speak in rhyme.”

Wagner feels that the disc’s final tune, “Glider,” best sums up his current state. “You wind gliders up and let ’em go, never really sure where they’ll end up. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, I just know I have to keep playing.”

The Saratogian (Saratoga Springs, NY)

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