San Francisco, Ca
October 13, 2014
Few acts live up to promise of their name better than Mutual Benefit. Offering a warm, immediately palatable assortment of songs intricate enough to keep you interested and melodically simple enough to provide instantaneous hooks, the band’s dense and delicate arrangements make for the perfect foundation for singer Jordan Lee’s meditations on life, goodness, and what it means to love. Not only do the parts fit seamlessly together, but the audience reaps their magnetic warmth for some serious soul-lifting, making good on the double meaning and delivering benefit for all parties involved.
From the moment they hit the stage at The Independent last month, it was clear what Lee and company had in mind. The frontman took the microphone, looked bright-eyed around the room, and softly said, “There’s so many human beings here.” His band responded with a slow build: a light pitter-patter of drums, spaced-out finger-picking, and a faint organ swell, gradually rising into a cathartic crash before simmering down into a standard pop strum.
For the most part, their setlist followed the template established by that first number: gentle introduction, gradual build, and melodic epiphany. Working with a little too much awe to be labeled twee or precious, the orchestral swells and vocal harmonies recall Sufjan Stevens if he focused more on grooves than space exploration. Almost every song would fit in perfectly around a campfire, on the back porch, or at any serene, slightly rustic setting that provokes quiet introspection and resonating contentment.
Despite the laid-back vibe of their work, Lee found himself inspired by some backstage photos featuring past artists who had played at the San Francisco venue, all in the midst of flying kicks or other real rock-and-roll maneuvers. After stating his intentions to try some of them out himself, he withheld until a particularly vigorous ramp-down — concluded with “You are going to die”- and jump-kicked to the final strum of his banjo. I won’t say that AC/DC should come calling, but he gave it more gusto than I would have expected.
Though every member made key contributions and displayed stellar musicianship, Lee clearly fronts the collective and very closely controls the show. During every song, the contented sage in the middle found his own rhythm, then looked over at each individual member and gave them a knowing nod, checking in to make sure that everything was a-ok. It’s not out of the ordinary to see that much eye contact between performers sharing the stage, but the frontman’s gaze had an almost paternal quality, closer to the leader of a cult than your typical folk band.
Towards the back half of the set, Lee’s guitar experienced some technical difficulties, and he was forced to proceed with only his banjo, declaring that we were “Now entering the twang zone” and “Tonight, I accept my banjo destiny.” Admittedly, I wasn’t immensely familiar with their material prior to the show, so the switch didn’t seem to alter the presentation much. It was clear that the man behind the project didn’t feel the same, but he hid his discomfort as best he could and forged along, receiving rapturous responses from the crowd after every track.
At the end, Jordan Lee admitted that this show had turned out like one of his biggest nightmares, with technical difficulties interfering with one of the biggest shows of the tour. The people came back with a thunderous roar of approval, the proof that he pulled it off and of the triumph of warmth and positivity over fear and dread — a suitable and summating end to the evening.