Based on his midday performance on Friday of ACL Weekend Two, Ben Kweller seems to be trying to position himself as a pop-rock frontman, and though his mood was ultra-positive at the Miller Lite stage, his musical evolution might not land positively with everyone.
The musician, who spent his youth and teen years in Texas, has had multiple career shifts, from his time with Texas rock band Radish in the '90s to his solo singer-songwriter days, when he hit peak popularity with records "Sha Sha" and "On My Way," which showcased his catchy, irreverent lyrics and shaggy charm. But Kweller has been out of the music scene for a few years now, and only a few months ago he announced a new album to be released early in 2019.
At ACL Fest, bedecked with a red velvet blazer and black sneakers and with a rollicking rock band behind him, he played several new tracks. Songs like “Heart Attack Kid” and “You Can’t Hold Me” offer a sweeping and easily digestible upbeat vibe, while other new tracks deliver sentiments marked by a slightly-too-saccharine blandness, such as “It’s a Good Day Not to be Afraid of Being Afraid.” He also performed more than one song built around the premise of trying to convince a partner not to leave, a concept whose execution left me a bit cold.
He did play some old classics, such as the raw but grand narrative of “On My Way,” the quirky Texas love letter “Commerce, TX” and the meltingly romantic “Sundress.” But despite several crowd members shouting it out as a request, Kweller did not play “Wasted and Ready,” which is his best song based on every possible metric that I can personally come up with that matters to me specifically. “Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti, I am wasted but I'm ready.” How do you argue with that kind of sleazy, wide-eyed adorableness? The song is practically my mantra, and it’s also, again, catchy as all get out.
I suppose by the time you’re in your mid-30s, you realize you can’t stay wasted and ready forever, and Kweller is now ready in a different way, for a broader, more traditional pop rock career. He’s got himself a wireless mic and often walked around the stage practicing cool guy frontman moves, and it was all awfully different though certainly endearing. But I can’t help but feel, at the same time, that the artist’s talent for songwriting and lyricism is a little bit wasted with the new, more radio-friendly direction.
Things I love about contemporary Kweller? He stays in the lines and keeps things direct. He’s not going to make what should be a three-minute song into a six-minute one. He loves a good strong chorus. And he’s maintained a degree of his longtime musical persona of being a good-natured, slightly hapless and well-meaning person, dorkily sincere and a little melancholy. Finally, I appreciate how easily his pleasing rhymes about simple kinds of love translate to crowds and broader audiences. Any of Ben Kweller’s new tracks could be effectively employed at pivotal romantic moments in a film, and I wouldn’t be mad at all.