Sha sha redemption

Ben Kweller wins over Chico State crowd with tight jeans and love songs

DUDE LOOKED LIKE A … Popster Ben Kweller rocks out sensitively at Chico State

DUDE LOOKED LIKE A … Popster Ben Kweller rocks out sensitively at Chico State

Photo By Tom Angel

Ben Kweller & The Unicorns
BMU Auditorium
Friday, Aug. 27

Shadow outlines of shaggy haircuts and broomstick legs bounded onto the huge BMU stage, and delighted squeals from a largely young, decidedly female audience greeted the band even before the stage lights came up and revealed the pale baby face of pop star Ben Kweller. Pulling out all the rock star staples—the guitar strum that ends with an arm pointing to the rafters; bass player and lead guitarist facing each other and sharing a “yeah!” or an “all right!” and, of course, the constant addressing of the audience as “Chico!"—Kweller and his band had the crowd eating it up. And, for part of the set, there was some substance to go along with the style.

The first third of Kweller’s set did the job of keeping the rock steady, never letting up the beat that had little pockets of women dancing together and singing along. However, if you weren’t predestined to go nuts at the drop of the first note, the handful of rock songs were pretty faceless. Kweller stepped back and slid into the groove with the generic, mid-tempo crew of studio musicians and played along smoothly, but were uninspired.

In his return to the national spotlight since being hailed as the next Curt Cobain as the 15-year-old front man of grunge-rockers Radish in the mid-90s, Kweller has a more polished pop approach, hitting on some minor success with his solo debut Sha Sha, full of light-hearted indie-pop and classic pop-songwriter intuition.

With his second LP, On My Way, now out, maybe Kweller plans this time around the major-label track to follow the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race path to rock-and-roll success, but I hope not.

Thankfully, the band left after a handful of songs and Kweller stepped forward with just his acoustic guitar and allowed his personality to step forward as well. “On My Way” was the first acoustic number, and even though some of the lyrics are pretty dippy ("She makes hats with her hands. She is such an artist/ I’m her biggest fan and I’m teaching her to sing."), the chick in front of me ate it up, letting out a perceptible sigh as Kweller sang to her. I ate it up as well. Kweller was finally connecting, and his expressiveness and melodies were soaring, not hiding.

With even the cranky reviewer now on his side, Kweller played a handful of engaging acoustic numbers, including a great reworking of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” called “BK Baby” ("Rolling in my gray Volvo/ With my ragtop down so my hair can blow") before the band returned to the stage. After a couple of great, poppy piano numbers, including the dark and fun “Hospital Bed” off On My Way, it was back to the bore-rock. With the exception of the MTV video hit, “Wasted and Ready” (which ruled despite a baffling dueling-guitar break), the rest of the set was pretty dynamic-free. But, you could dance and sing to it easily enough, and I guess that was the hormone-inflated point of it all.

At the absolute opposite end of the live-music spectrum were openers The Unicorns. The drummer wore a white top hat, and bassist/guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Alden Ginger was decked out in a flowing, white outfit that could’ve gotten him an audition with Queen. The quirky trio’s disjointed, freewheeling pop-collages were so surprising and fresh as to mostly confuse the rock-ready crowd, who stuck with the group nonetheless.