by Peter Brizick
On a cold Philadelphia evening, twenty-four hours after the Eagles were handed their worst loss in the Chip Kelly-era, two singer/songwriters graced the stage at World Café Live. Unlike the football team, this pair of musical eagles took flight and their voices soared. Ben Kessler from Blue Bell, PA and featured artist Lewis Watson from Oxford, UK are kindred spirits from opposite sides of the pond. The 200+ fans in attendance were taken on an emotional tour. These guys brought their A-games.
The show was scheduled to begin at 8pm. Kessler, being sixteen years of age, hit the stage at 7:55 – – eager, confident, entertaining, and mature beyond his years. Kessler is currently performing to support his latest EP entitled, So It Goes, which was released on September 12th. On this night, the hometown boy made good.
It would be easy to listen to Kessler and compare his style to a few other currently-popular artists. What is much more difficult is to close your eyes and convince yourself that the lyrics, voice, and guitar-playing you are hearing is produced by a sixteen year old musician who has already been doing this for several years now. On “Too Lonely”, his voice is silky-smooth and he easily glides from low to high and back again. There is great emphasis placed on featuring his falsetto which is typically difficult for male singers to develop and control. His cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was tastefully unique and gospel-esque. This is a song that many play without understanding its vulnerabilities. Kessler not only pulled it off but added his own stamp to its rich history. Closing his set with a new song, “These Days”, from the current EP, Kessler demonstrated his ability to incorporate some edginess into his vocals which, to my ear, almost represents a clue to how his style may continue to evolve as it most certainly will.
After a short change-over of equipment, Lewis Watson and his partner, a female keyboard player to whom he jokingly refers as “mum”, take the stage. Over the course of the set, their banter increases as is customary between travelling musicians who spend more time with each-other than with their friends and families. Later in the show, Watson exercised his sense of humor when responding to a request for a John Mayer song. It was not in the set-list. In fact, they don’t use a set-list anymore, preferring to let the show take its own course and be moved by the vibe between themselves and the audience.
From the very beginning, their voices blend and their harmonies are strong. Although there were several times over the night when Watson would mention not being accustomed to performing without his full band, I must say that the songs and duo performance did not lack for anything. In fact, for anyone who is familiar with the full-production versions of the material, this performance provided haunting renditions which allowed for greater space and flexibility. Song after emotional song, the audience is transported from England to Los Angeles; Midwest to Northeast. “Windows”, “Halo”, “Stay”, “Ghost”, “Into the Wild”, a cover of an Everything Everything tune, and, yes, even a spontaneous performance of “Happy Birthday” for a young lady near the front of the stage.
Watson’s guitar playing was spot-on as they might say in the U.K and the tone of his guitar was often modified by the generous use of his capo. Using the capo not only allows a singer to perform in a certain key with friendlier chord-fingerings, but also changes the complexion of the sound being produced. The strings vibrate differently and the notes sustain and subside differently. On a quick side-note – Mike, the audio engineer for the venue, had the PA system dialed in exquisitely. The tone was very warm and appropriate for the style of music being presented.
The keyboard-player primarily utilized a piano sound, but often layered strings, ethereal vocal sounds, traditional electric piano sounds, and the classic Hammond organ patches. Her voice compliments Watson’s in every way, whether singing harmonies or in unison but higher by one octave.
The final song of the set, “Into the Wild”, was absolutely stirring. The lyrics are pure poetry, the accompaniment profound, and the audience responded by singing along:
Sea salt sits on your lips,
Birds fall earthward from cliffs,
Thought I couldn’t do this but I’m fine,
’cause you’re by my side.
And all I have, it doesn’t seem so significant
And at the drop of a hat,
My whole world’s getting different,
So here we go, off road.
Step out into the wild,
There’s a beautiful storm in your eyes,
We’re perfectly intertwined
And if it’s quite alright,
You could be my way of life.
The encore was beautiful and presented with such humility. Watson came back, alone, stood in the middle of the crowd and performed “Castle Street” – – no microphone, no lights, no sound system. Surrounded by “his people”. It was his way of saying thank you before he hit the road again for the next town. Classy move from a classy guy!