Songwriter riding ‘Wave’ to critical success
When I lived in Nashville we used to say that you couldn’t throw a stick without hitting a songwriter. It’s getting to be the same way here in the North Bay.
Garrin Benfield is an extremely gifted songwriter and singer who now calls San Francisco home. Originally from a small town outside New York City, Garrin is the youngest of nine children. After high school he went off to Hampton College in Northhampton, MA and formed a band called Maya that later moved with him to the West Coast.
Upon his arrival he hooked up with Grammy-nominated producer and musician Michael Rodriguez who has produced four of Garrin’s five CD releases: “Living A Dream” (2000), “Nowhere is Brighter “(2002), “Where Joy Kills Sorrow” (2004) and his most recent “The Wave Organ Song” that was released late last year. The fifth album is a live recording titled “August Live” that was recorded in 2003 while on tour with Boz Scaggs and released the following year.
Benfield has toured the States constantly and played many of the major venues from Carnegie Hall to The Bitter End in New York, the Bluebird Café in Nashville and The Fillmore in San Francisco. His 2002 CD “Nowhere is Brighter” featured Bonnie Raitt’s band along with guest Boz Scaggs. The disc was named a “Top 10 CD of 2002” by “Performing Songwriter” and “Acoustic Guitar” magazines.
Garrin sent me his latest CD for a possible review. While I have not reviewed all that many discs since I started writing for The Sun, because I don’t consider myself a critic, but when I (finally) put his CD on, I knew that the record and its creator would be something I was going to write about.
Known as a road warrior and guitar innovator who has spent years developing a complex, loop-driven solo show, Benfield, on his latest project, “The Wave Organ Song,” eschews a traditional display of virtuosity and instead focuses on his voice and gently fingerpicked electric guitar accompaniment. He discovered this approach while deep into the overdub process of the album’s now-abandoned first sessions.
“It seemed the more layers we added, the farther away we were getting from the essence of the material,” Benfield recalls. In an effort to refocus, he recorded a few solo versions of the tunes and immediately felt that he had hit on something more true. Abandoning the full-band versions of the new songs, he started over, and “The Wave Organ Song” began to take its current form.
“This was as difficult as any recording project I’ve been a part of. Maybe more so because I was trying to get complete, unedited takes,” Benfield said. He was not alone in this effort, however. The tune also features his first lyrical collaborations, with Jason Durant and, on one song, Deana Walker. “If one thing was going to prevent me from finishing a song, sometimes for years, it would be a missing verse or bridge. So working with those two writers was very motivating for me,” he said..
The songs on the project travel gently from the deeply personal (“Moanin’ Low,” “No Compass”) to narratives so detailed as to be cinematic (“Mexico,” “Snakes in the Woodpile”). In between, Benfield hits on universal sentiments with innovative Americana settings (“Rock n’ Roll,” “Are You With Me”) and indulges his pop leanings (“Colors in You” and his cover of the recently deceased Alex Chilton’s “Thirteen”).
On “Moanin’ Low” for example, he sings, “This road I’m on/Is long and lonely/My heart’s gone cold/Without you I’m only/Moanin’ low and kicking stones/Without direction and kicking stones/I got no compass/No place to rest my bones.” And that’s just in the first song. Benfield has a remarkable way to tell a story that draws you in with every line he writes and sings.
On “Walkin’ Time Blues” he sings, “If there’s a reason to stay/In the Mission all night/Slipping into doorways/It’s to stay out of sight/But we got it all wrong/We both know that it’s true/Before the night gets too long/We got the walkin’ time blues.”
The first time I put this CD on, I was totally blown away by the sensitive lyrics and emotional delivery of each line. While I have not heard any of his other releases, after hearing this acoustic gem of a record, I can’t imagine what he and his songs sound like with a full backing band.
Information about “The Wave Organ Song” on the singer’s website states, “In an age when ‘tracks’ have overtaken the art of the album, Garrin Benfield announces the release of ‘The Wave Organ Song,’ a hauntingly honest song cycle that captures an artist who has tapped into a wellspring of inspiration. It is a perfectly paced musical journey that might best be accompanied by candlelight and a bottle of Pinot Noir. Lovingly recorded to capture every breathy nuance, this collection of in-studio solo performances is an unadorned and chillingly intimate emotional travelogue.” I could not have said it better than that!
Next month Benfield will play three shows at the prestigious South By Southwest festival in Austin. He performs some 100 dates nationally each year, and will be play Sonoma in mid May.