Live Review: Ben Kweller at Fitzgerald’s, April 19, 2012, Houston

Ben Kweller may not wear a stiff shirt and gripe about his 401(k), but he’s still a consummate (musical) professional, a truth he demonstrated with aplomb at Fitzgerald’s in Houston last week.

Kweller opened his set with effervescence, spirit, and precision with the new song “Mean to Me,” the first track from his latest release, Go Fly a Kite. Other performances from Kite delivered equal expertise: “Gossip,” which featured Kweller at the piano, brought a lilting, Abbey Road-esque melody with a surprising depth of sound, and “Free” fed the audience a chunky classic-rock groove. The performance imbued the Kite songs with a distinctiveness and energy that got lost in the recording studio.

With nearly 15 years in the business, Kweller knew better than to skimp on old crowd favorites. “I Need You Back” punctuated his newer releases with a welcome dose of power-pop fun, and songs like “Lizzy” and “Sundress” satisfied the need for sentimental love songs. That being said, Kweller’s music is so catchy and memorable that sometimes it’s hard to tell old classics from new favorites. Indeed, the crowd bobbed and sang to “Jealous Girl” like it had loved it for years rather than months.

Perhaps the highlight of Kweller’s performance was his well curated collection of quasi-country music. “Fight,” a track from the oft-overlooked 2009 album Changing Horses, inspired the audience to a boot-stomping, fist-pumping singalong, and “Full Circle,” with its simplistic bass line and homespun charm drifted delightfully through the sweaty Texas venue. Songs like these continue to make Kweller a home-state indie hero.

Even with all of his practiced precision, Kweller’s performance maintained a lighthearted, adolescent feel (in a good way). The 30-year-old father of two still managed to capture the airy frustration of America’s modern teenager, and songs like “Wasted & Ready” rang out as honest, youthful anthems rather than awkward hits from an artist past his prime.

No part of the Fitzgerald’s show demonstrated this better than the encore performance of “Penny on the Train Tracks,” during which Kweller climbed on an amp and suggestively begged, “Come on baby girl, let me see those legs, before I get flattened away.” With his characteristic playfulness, Kweller stopped his solicitations to ponder how the key and rhythm of “Penny on the Tracks” was surprisingly similar to Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle.” This aroused yet another sing-along from the audience, and the crowd’s chorus of “everything, everything will be all right, all right” blended harmoniously with Kweller’s closing song.

Kweller clearly amounts to more than the sum of his musical parts — his live performance accounts for something that his recordings tend to lack. Those who scoff at his albums for being complacent or lacking innovation would do well to step out from behind their computers and see what Kweller has to offer on stage.

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