The ballad of Ben, Frank and Dana
Sacramento musicians love to become chameleons. One moment, they’re banging out punk-rock anthems. The next, they’re playing in country cover bands or scribbling sensitive singer-songwriter tunes on tear-soaked napkins. Such is the story of Ben Steinert. Perhaps most well known for his work with his hard electronica act Deimos, Steinert has been toiling away on a pop-music side project that he rolled out last week at the Capitol Garage.
As he did with his previous pop record, Steinert released the new album, Glory Honor and Power, under the title “the Ben Steinert Assault.” Steinert himself performs virtually every note on the CD (with notable help from Hella’s Spencer Seim on drums). Therein lies the challenge of putting together a band to represent the music in a live setting. Steinert’s solution was to create something of a Sacramento supergroup: the songwriter himself on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Seim returning to the drum stool, Thaddeus Stoenner (Pocket for Corduroy) on bass and Mike Woodall (Radio Star) on lead guitar and backup vocals.
Sharing the bill with Deathray’s Dana Gumbiner and Sacramento band Frank Jordan, the Ben Steinert Assault performed more like a seasoned rock band than an evening one-off. The songs were tight and even and carried much of the pop punch that is apparent from the CD. The song “Without the Beatles” underscored melodic songwriting, while nodding self-referentially at its own influences. “Katie Holmes” and “On Hold With Jenny” were particular standouts, displaying how vibrant the band could be. These tracks also underscored Steinert’s pop-songwriting specialty: writing quirky love songs reminiscent of Weezer.
The one potential problem with the live show was the insistence on faster songs, particularly when album tracks like “A Weak Heart” and “The Day You Went to Space” (both reminiscent of Elliot Smith) are so compelling. Song after song of fast material began to elicit comparisons to pop-punk radio mainstays Blink-182. One wonders if a bit more diversity in the live set would make for a more balanced performance.
Sporting a self-proclaimed “archeology professor” beard, Gumbiner performed solo during the opening act. Gumbiner’s music is always compelling, but the performance seemed slightly unfocused this time, particularly with some missed chord changes and general confusion. To the rescue came Gumbiner’s 3-year-old son, Jack, who sang the lead guitar lines (and provided rocket sound effects) during the songwriter’s last number.
Frank Jordan went from being a trio to a four-piece band for the evening because of guitarist and singer Mike Visser’s broken hand. The effect was stellar and energizing. Replacing Visser’s hand for the evening was Jessica Cuckovich, who provided no-nonsense rhythm-guitar work that perfectly filled the gap. There were, of course, a few moments where the band staggered slightly, but Visser’s vocals more than compensated for those. Perhaps because Visser wasn’t saddled with the guitar, his voice was focused and emotive. One hopes that the band will continue to perform as a quartet; the possibilities could be truly beautiful.