Where does “Indie Rock” end and “Adult Contemporary” begin? Last Tuesday night at the Vogue left me pondering that very question. I can remember a time not too long ago when bands like Death Cab for Cutie or The Decemberists were darlings of the indie rock scene. They were independent power-houses that packed clubs and moved records without the help of any major labels, and at the same time, they created music that was important and honest.
Now, years later, these bands have moved away from not only the “independent” status they once enjoyed, but their music has lost much of its former relevancy. They have dissolved from indie rock giants into dust blowing in the “adult contemporary” wind.
Another “indie darling” that always hit the mark was Ben Kweller. Kweller made a name for himself as a child prodigy of sorts in his native Texas. He formed his first band, Radish, when he was 12, signed to a major label and had a hit in England.
After Radish disbanded, Kweller moved to New York and started his solo career. His first album, Sha Sha was a favorite on college radio stations and in indie rock circles. His bouncy songwriting worked well with his crunchy, Weezer-esque sound. Before he was even 20, Kweller was selling out clubs and touring alongside personal heroes like Jeff Tweedy.
With so much of his career based on his youth, Kweller had a tricky task of growing into his career instead of out of it. At The Vogue, he had the dubious distinction of opening for Pete Yorn. Now, Yorn is a fine musician but no one has ever mistaken his music for “cutting edge” or “progressive”. Did touring with Yorn mean that Kweller’s aspirations had shifted from writing outstanding songs to heavy rotation on WTTS? Had his indie rock perfection coroded away into adult contemporary mediocrity? Many had they doubts, but Kweller is not to be underestimated.
After an uneventful set by acoustic pop trio The Wellspring (who, oddly enough, went into great detail in explaining their corporate sponsorship), Kweller humbly slid out onto the stage with nothing more than an acoustic guitar; no backing band to speak of. With his first notes, the pint-sized prodigy blew away any doubts concerning his development as an artist and a performer.
Despite having more recent material, Kweller opened with a fantastically inspired, if not stripped down, version of “In Other Words” from 2002’s Sha Sha. Kweller may be 30 now, but he still thrashed around on stage like he was 12 all over again, making full use of the vast and often lonely Vogue stage.
In addition to wigging out during guitar solos, Kweller maintained a youthful disposition which included healthy amounts of smiling and plenty of charming crowd interaction. At one point, Kweller preached to the crowd on the importance of Garth Brooks’ seemingly classic album Ropin’ the Wind. Later, he coached the crowd through the melodic chorus of “I Don’t Know Why” from his 2006 self-titled album.
The rest of the set included a healthy mixture of songs pulled from all four of his studio albums. Kweller filled the void of his solo show with energetic performances and frequent shifts from guitar to keyboard, further displaying his musical mastery and explaining how he had earned his “prodigy” status, nearly 20 years ago.
As Kweller graciously exited the stage, it was apparent that he would not be slipping into the doldrums of the adult contemporary airwaves anytime soon. With a new album slated to be released this year, he is not showing any signs of slowing down. Let’s hope he can find the time to stop through Indianapolis again on a headlining tour.