No one will mistake Benjamin Booker for a rock star yet, but most of the people who saw his First Avenue concert Thursday night probably don’t doubt he’ll be one someday.
The bluesy, blustery New Orleans singer/guitarist blew through town last summer for a wham-bam, ragtag but rousing local debut at the Turf Club. Thursday’s concert was a little more refined and showy — no problems with beat-up music gear this time — but it was still rougher around the edges than 90 percent of the shows that hit the First Ave main room these days. Which was part of the excitement.
A rhythmic, scratchy guitar player with a voice to match, Booker, 25, raced through his first few songs with wild abandon and nary a down moment to catch his breath. The straight-ahead, attack-mode, punk-rocky opener “Always Waiting” gave way to the shuffling, bluesier boogie of “Chippewa,” which saw a wave of head-bobbing ripple through the near-capacity crowd (as close as the indie-rock audience got to dancing).
After reaching a manic state a few songs later with “Happy Homes,” Booker interestingly broke down the tempos and volume with a couple of very different, mellower numbers starting with “Falling Down Blues,” a way-oldie from Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis turned into a Cajun folk tune, with bassist Alex Spoto bowing a fiddle while drummer Max Norton plucked a mandolin and worked his kick-drum. They followed with “Slow Coming,” a swaying, soulful moaner from Booker’s eponymous debut that showed off his raspy but evocative, ruggedly graceful voice, like a gutter-punk Otis Redding.
Throughout the 70-minute set, Booker leaned into his two bandmates’ loose groove power as both the engine and rudder in the performance. He repeatedly turned and looked toward Norton the way his tourmate from last year, Jack White, used to face Meg White in the White Stripes. A little more interaction with the crowd might have been a good thing from a showman standpoint, but the band maintained a vibrant musical synergy. The show meandered into a couple long jams at the end, which felt like filler to make up for Booker’s lack of original material (he only has one album to his name).
Booker only spoke to the crowd a few times, once to egg them into singing along during “Little Liza Jane,” a New Orleans music standard that was sped up to a wild party anthem.
“We’re in the home of ‘Purple Rain,’ and you can’t do better than that?!” he deadpanned, sounding very much like Prince himself. There’s definitely a rock star in there waiting to burst.