It's Thursday afternoon and outside the front entrance to the Theatre of Living Arts are two middle-aged men. They keep their eyes and ears peeled as South Street traffic passes. Occasionally they look longingly at the venue doors. On the marquee above them, big black letters announce tonight's act: "Brendan Benson."
A little after 5 p.m. a van pulls up and the two men immediately pull out sharpies and CDs. Brendan Benson is the last out, tall and incredibly thin, wearing a blazer over a t-shirt and jeans. Before he even has the chance to survey the venue, he is signing autographs and chatting with fans. Eventually, he makes it to the top floor green room of the TLA, sinks into the black couch and lights a cigarette.
"Some people can be pretty fanatical," he says of his avid followers. "I think they love the music. Being a solo artist is strange. People say 'We love Brendan Benson,' and I think, 'Well, you don't really love Brendan Benson, you love the music.' That's how I like to think about it."
Three albums into his career, Benson has found himself a relative unknown with quite a dedicated following. Message board members have created entire threads to figure out what kind of cereal he is eating on the cover of his sophomore album, Lapalco. The answer, obviously, is insignificant. In fact, Benson himself isn't sure. "Most likely I'm having Special K or Shredded Wheat," he says taking a drag from his cigarette. "You gotta stay regular on tour." But, probable constipation aside, a cereal brand debate is just one of the signs that Benson is taking his career to the next level.
The Detroit native is often referred to as just a friend of Jack White (who also doubles as his neighbor) and -- unless you're the lead singer of the Von Bondies -- that connection probably doesn't hurt. Benson has expressed distaste in being referred to simply as White's friend, but that hasn't stopped the friendship from expanding into collaboration. At some point in the future, Benson and White will release an album they've working on together which Benson has said combines their two distinct styles, and while he is currently focusing on his one-man band, Benson cannot hide his friendships or deny his hometown roots. While the Detroit scene is making its own spot in the music business, Benson has re-adopted it as his home after spending a brief period in California. The impact may or may not be conscious, since Benson isn't sure what the affect on the music is, but he quickly describes his city as derelict and depressed.
"It's pretty unique in that way," he says. "So much so that it looks almost post-apocalyptic. It's weird."
Still, in the wake of the apocolypse and famous friends, Benson has had a successful stint all on his own. His latest effort, The Alternative To Love, stands to prove his worth not just as a songwriter but also as a music maker. Benson -- with his press release claiming he is part singer-songwriter, part one-man band -- performs almost all of the music on his album himself. Though it gives him full responsibility and a certain amount of control over what sounds are created, he works that way mostly out of convenience. "It's partially because it's really quick and easy for me to do it. I have a studio at home," he explains. "It's also because I love to play. I love to play the drums. I'm not very good at piano, but it's an opportunity for me to learn."
Alternative To Love is pop music at its very best and easily the best thing Benson has done to date. Whether he's a "sad and sorry case" seeking vindication on "Feel Like Myself" or asking "What have I done?" on the title track, Alternative doesn't miss a beat... or a note...or a chance to stick right into the back of your brain and follow you around for days.
"Biggest Fan," seems to be the most appropriate song title on Alternative -- not just because Benson has many of them, but because, in some respect, Brendan Benson is his own biggest fan. Ask him what he thinks of his collaboration with Jack White, and he'll say, "The record sounds great. I can't wait." Ask him about his future plans and he'll respond with a smile and an "I've already started work on the next record and I can tell already that it's gonna be good. I'm really excited about it."
In the green room at the TLA, a venue worker brings in bags of food for Benson and his band. Even though he's hungry, Benson is more concerned with what there is to drink.
"Is there wine?" he asks. The answer is yes, but he won't bring it up the three flights of stairs for another hour. At first, he nods sadly in agreement, but inevitably the guy gives in and goes back down the stairs, offering to bring the wine right away and set up the food later. Benson smiles. "Thanks man," he says. "I love red wine."
The upbeat feeling of Alternative To Love and his confidence in himself makes it difficult to believe that Benson hasn't found exactly what his album title calls for. Maybe the secret lies in the simple things Benson seems to enjoy most: a cigarette, some wine, a batch of catchy, well-written, drum-featuring love songs, and a future he has no hesitations about. You certainly don't need any shredded wheat for that.