“Tell Your Story While It Still Has You”

August 12th, 2012 · 9 Comments · By

Tonight’s concert at The Garage will be bittersweet; the farewell concert of D.B.B. Plays Cups. David Baker Benson is moving to Ulm, Deutschland with his family, and this will be his last forseeable musical appearance in Charlottesville.

I’ve written a lot about David over the years, and it’s always been difficult to accurately sum up the nature of his music. I will say with confidence that “Cup of Life,” “Stories,” “Georgie,” “Champagne Advertisement,” Coffee, Cold,” “Ripped Jeans,” “Who Broke Into the Wine Cellar?” and especially “Go Out on a High Note” are some of the best, most thoughtful, and most singularly unique contemporary songs that I’ve heard, from Charlottesville or elsewhere.

His live performances are another thing entirely; no two D.B.B. performances are the same; there are no definitive versions of any Cups songs, and he’s content to let each recording and each live show stand or fail on its’ own merits without any concert for the overall arc of the bands’ “career” or anything like that. So I’m sure tonight will be no different; it most likely won’t be the definitive, final farewell Cups show, but it will be a D.B.B. Plays Cups show, which means nothing is certain and anything can happen.

Anyhow, David is a good friend and a good musician, and I will miss him and Charlottesville will miss his music.

Below the poster I made for the show, and below that is a thing I wrote about David for the paper a few months ago, which never ended up running in print; it now looks like it won’t get the chance, so I thought I’d post it here.

David Baker Benson is among the strongest songwriters in town, but the precise nature of talent is hard to pin down. It’s not like he hasn’t done his fair share of collaboration; seemingly everyone who comes into Benson’s orbit ends up performing with him at some point, whether they’re a skilled musician or complete amateurs. But the shifting nature of Benson’s musical project means that few things are predictable; his performances have ranged from solo, folk-ish outings to large-scale improvisation that borders on noise; he once explained, “the thing I like to tell people is that they should see two of our shows, and they’ll probably like one of them.”

Benson’s first efforts as a songwriter came together on a 2008 recording entitled DBB Plays Cups, and as he began performing live, that soon became the name of the band.  His lyrics are as thoughtful and witty as those of Bill Callahan or the Silver Jews. It’s sometimes impossible to tell whether DBB’s lyrics are witheringly sarcastic or completely sincere (He claims equal enthusiasm for all possible interpretations of his work – with other writers that might seem evasive, but with Benson it’s clear that he actually means it.)

Newcomers to his music might identify him as an “outsider artist,” but several facts make that categorization tricky. First and foremost, Benson is extremely well-versed in music history, and will talk enthusiastically about his appreciation from artists ranging from Jandek and Will Oldham to obscure krautrock groups and underground noise projects. There’s a self-awareness and a deliberation that prevent his work from being categorized as naive, though he often shares with those artists a simplicity coupled with strangeness, a sense that his work is coming from outside of many known strategies or traditions.

The fractional nature of his performances and the obscurity of his discography are wholly intentional, but his choice to remain mercurial is an honest one, rather than an elite affectation. In person, David is sincere and straightforward in a way that’s almost disarming; he deals with people one-on-one, he has little to no ego about his songs, and his casual, friendly nature is so inclusive that I’ve witnessed him inviting strangers to join his band within minutes of meeting them.

Of course, this hasn’t led to the most coherent or rehearsed performances; often, the group seems to be looking to Benson for cues about where the song is going next, but often pitch, tempo, and volume are all variables for Benson, who seems content to let the songs exist as a shambling mess. He’s at his best when a skilled band picks a groove and sticks with it, allowing his songs to settle over top.

One certainty is that his performances will almost never resemble the processed, synthesizer-heavy mood of his three self-released albums, which most resemble the early efforts of the Magnetic Fields, with a thick sheen of 80’s light-rock gloss. (A planned fourth album, described in all seriousness as “Grateful Dead-style epic jam session,” was reportedly recorded and then shelved). He’s shown no interest in actively distributing those albums outside of the range of a few friends and acquaintances, seemingly content to have them exist in the world, with the knowledge that those who might appreciate them could potentially discover them naturally. He’s content to let his music exist in the moment and on it’s own strengths and weaknesses. In an age in which most bands aggressively market themselves through social media and newly-forged potential paths to overnight success. For the increasing number who are exhausted by the hyper-promotional onslaught of the contemporary music business, Benson’s attitude towards his career is almost as refreshing as his songs.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Emily // Aug 12, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Fitting that the photo for the show poster looks reminiscent of a Harmonia album…..

  • 2 James // Aug 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    hm, interesting… which Harmonia album? I love both their album covers, but I don’t quite see the resemblance…
    I was actually going for “Powers of Ten” meets “Pet Sounds!”

  • 3 steev // Aug 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    i am in the process of digitizing a bunch of cassette recordings from DBB’s personal archive of shows…i’ll alert nailgun and all DBB Plays Cups taper heads when i have digital fruit to bear.

  • 4 Emily // Aug 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    I was thinking of the back cover of Harmonia Deluxe, which shows a German beach picnic. same vibes, I guess…..

  • 5 bumewph // Aug 17, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Very beautiful and convenient location.

  • 6 James // Aug 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    aha! I’d forgotten about that back cover, it’s a good one:
    http://www.backtoblackvinyl.com/images/album-artwork/big/harmonia-deluxe-back.jpg

    the image I used is a still from the book version (borrowed from my Dad) of “Powers of Ten” by Charles and Ray Eames, which is excellent and one of my favorite things and something which I encourage each of you to check out, if you haven’t: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0

  • 7 Sarah // Aug 22, 2012 at 10:36 am

    sarah carr likes this

  • 8 Morgan // Aug 24, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Dang, sorry I missed this. Did he ever record “Ripped Jeans” or “Wine Cellar,” by the way? Those are two great songs.

  • 9 James // Aug 24, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    he sang both! two of my favorite unrecorded/unreleased D.B.B. songs (along with “Who Knows Who”)