Benjamin Booker didn’t need any introductions to the two acts he’ll precede to the stage Saturday at Rock the Garden in Minneapolis.
First comes the reunited Revolution, whose last record with Prince marked a very big first in Booker’s life: “I lost my virginity to that album,” the 28-year-old Southern rocker confessed, referring to 1986’s “Parade.”
Then there’s Bon Iver, whom Booker covered in concert around 2009 when he was still an aspiring music journalist.
“It was the first rock show I was at where people were shooshing each other to be quiet,” he remembered.
While police shootings and personal turmoil brought a more solemn tone to his new album, “Witness,” Booker is still making a lot of noise on tour. The Florida-raised, New Orleans-buoyed singer/guitarist made heavy impressions at his lively prior showings in town at First Avenue and Festival Palomino, blending his raw Chuck Berry guitar riffs with punky Southern boogie and raspy, sometimes deceptively serene soul-man vocals.
Talking by phone Monday from his new home base of Los Angeles, Booker discussed some of the darker elements on his new record with a light tinge of humor and a hopeful outlook.
“I was going through a pretty normal quarter-life crisis,” he said of the album’s writing period.
“After college, for a few years you’re kind of in this phase where you’re still trying to figure things out. I didn’t know what type of artist I wanted to be, and I just wasn’t happy with the type of life I was living. A lot of the record is about figuring those things out, trying to take action and fix things.”
One of the aspects of his life that he decided to change was his surroundings. Before recording “Witness,” he left New Orleans after a five-year stay that started when he went to work for AmeriCorps.
While he said his relocation had as much to do with his own personal restlessness — “I even change the furniture around if I stay in one apartment for more than a few months,” he said — it was also hastened following an incident in which he was randomly shot at while riding his bike around town.
“A similar thing happened to a friend of mine a few months earlier, where I was just riding my bike and it happened,” said Booker, who still pledged his love for NOLA but didn’t sugarcoat its problems. “In most cities, you know the areas to avoid, but there the violence is just too much a part of the city. It’s hard to avoid.”
Leaving New Orleans
Concurrent to his own run-in with gun violence, Booker said he became disillusioned from all the high-profile shootings of other African-American men, including Trayvon Martin and Minnesota’s Philando Castile. That sparked the album’s rousing title track, a gospel-ized gem that he wrote alongside many of the other new songs after he temporarily holed up in Mexico City.
“Seems like the whole damn nation’s trying to take us down,” he sings. “When your brother’s dying / Mother’s crying / TV’s lying / All the reasons in the world don’t mean [expletive] to me now.”
Booker said “Witness” was more specifically inspired by the widespread media coverage of those tragedies than by the shootings themselves.
“It was more about the news-cycle aspect of it,” he said. “It just seemed like it was constant. There was always something on the news about another shooting.”
While he went to Mexico City partly to get away from that seemingly nonstop turmoil in America, he realized race issues are prevalent in other countries, too: “You go to Mexico City and realize that all the rich people there are all white, too, and they’ve also instituted racist policies that are all about power and money, just like in America,” he said.
Unexpectedly, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mavis Staples — herself an icon of the civil rights movement and a guest singer on “Witness” — helped give Booker a more optimistic outlook that permeates other songs on the record, including the strings-accompanied anthem “Believe.” He first met the legendary Staple Singers family member in 2015 when he contributed the song “Take Us Back” to her album, “Livin’ on a High Note” (which also features a song by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon).
“She’s just a really positive person to be around,” Booker said.
“She talked to me a lot about being older and focusing more on family and enjoying the simpler things. For me, that was a sharp contrast to the way I was living. So a lot of this record comes from that kind of advice, trying to embrace friends and family and not worrying too much about paying the bills or everything bad going on in the world.”
Booker first found success rather abruptly in 2014 when some demos he posted online earned the attention of ATO Records. The label issued his eponymous debut that spring and lined him up for a breakout performance of the jittery single “Violent Shiver” on David Letterman’s show. He spent the next two years touring, including a lot of high-profile festival appearances.
Talking right after he finished another round of big outdoor fests in Europe, Booker said, “They take some getting used to, but we’re getting back into the swing of them now.” Surprisingly, he admitted to suffering from stage fright up until recent outings.
“I would just put on a good face,” he said. “It wasn’t crazy nervousness, it was just worrying about messing up a guitar part. I like playing around as a singer, too, so I worry about messing around too much and falling flat.”
In the case of Rock the Garden, having the Revolution follow him probably isn’t the best cure for any performance anxiety (see: his prior admission), but he said, “I have some friends there in Minneapolis and heard good things about it. It should be fun.”
Shooshing, or no shooshing.