The Brilliance of Benjamin Booker’s First (and Next) Big Year


What do you do once you’ve crossed off the last item on your bucket list?

Where do you go? Do you travel the world? Do you visit the cities you scrawled in a notebook somewhere, should you ever have the time or the money for a vacation? Do you dive into another pursuit, like photography, or film, or dance, or cooking? Maybe you put a stupid amount of cash down on a car, or a guitar, or another material thing you’ve lusted after but could never make yours. Do you simply make another bucket list, one that improves upon the goals and dreams of the last one?

Benjamin Booker is in the process of figuring that out.

“People ask me what my goals are, and I definitely have goals for things I want to do, musically,” he says, briefly reflecting on the last year in particular. “But I checked so many things off my music bucket list. We’ve done so much. I don’t know what else would be a surprise. We’ve played festivals and toured the world and done some TV shows, played with our guitar heroes, that kind of thing. I’m loving it.”

It’s easy to see why, and he’s not exaggerating — if anything, he’s downplaying the meteoric quality of the past year. Just after his 25th birthday in June of 2014, Booker had critics and the venerable rock stars he was shouldering up against hanging on his every chord as he hopped from one summer festival to the next, from Lollapalooza to Newport Folk to Austin City Limits. The August drop of his self-titled debut on ATO Records brought with it a new fervor for Booker’s hoary voice, rambunctious licks, and vintage rock sensibilities. Jack White invited him to open a hefty chunk of his Lazaretto tour, and a few months later, Booker and his band found themselves at White’s own Third Man Records in Nashville, recording a live album and revisiting the tunes that were fresh enough to still be sitting pretty on the Recently Played playlists of his supportive critics. Some musicians go their whole careers without being presented with the opportunity to capture the magic of their live set on wax, and January’s Live at Third Man Records frames these new songs as fresh classics worth preserving in various forms. Most recently, he worked two songs from his debut, “Slow Coming” and “Wicked Waters,” into one powerful short film inspired by the frustrations, anger, and hope for a better future that continue to rise in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He’s just getting started, and yet he’s already achieved more in his first year than most can hope to have a shot at in a lifetime — and the live record is maybe the clearest indication that Booker’s rise is worth documenting from the start.

You’ve gotta be a big deal in order to cut a live record, and you’ve gotta be a bigger deal to get away with cutting one within six months of the drop of your debut album. Booker himself wasn’t sure that Live at Third Man Records was going to be a real-deal release in various formats, but the live album — like the festivals and the sweet touring gigs with musicians he adores and the rest — made for a killer surprise.

“We really approached it like any of the shows we were doing,” he says. “We didn’t, like, say, ‘This is a live record, let’s really plan this out.’ We just did what we do every night. To be honest with you, I thought that the Third Man release was just going to be…on the website or whatever, and then I got a call that this was going to be a huge release. I was really happy with the way that it turned out. I thought it was a good representation of what we do. The studio record was mostly recorded live — I’d go back and fix vocals and stuff, but most of that was live. Still, in a studio situation, it’s weird when you have headphones on; it really changes everything. This was none of that: There was a crowd there and it was just us playing. It felt more like us, what it sounds like when these two guys and I get together and play a show.”

Live at Third Man Records is a distillation of what fans can expect as he heads out on a run of dates that’ll bring him across the country, overseas, and back again before September rolls around. It also serves as an accurate touchstone for where Booker’s at right now, as he’s still very much in the headspace of his debut and honing his chops onstage. To mix things up and capitalize on the momentum of the past year, Booker’s been incorporating new covers into his current set — he’s partial to trying Nina Simone’s take on “Little Liza Jane” on for size — and writing on the road. While new Booker material is set to make its way into earbuds in the not-so-distant future, he’s not the type to slowly leak new tracks as he prepares listeners for a new album.

“I have a handful of songs,” he says. “There are hundreds of notes on my phone, or melodies and lyrics or something that comes to mind. I have half of those guitar parts I need to put together, you know what I mean? It’s a lot of ideas, I guess. I don’t want to play new songs just yet; I want to have everything together. I need the time to really sit down and work on them, but it’s probably going to be a lot different than the last record.”

Where he’ll find it is hard to say. On April 3, Booker will headline a sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with Olivia Jean; from there, Coachella, Sasquatch!, Governors Ball, Primavera Sound, Bonnaroo, and more major stage engagements await him. The next time Booker will headline a New York City venue, it’ll likely sell out, just as the Music Hall of Williamsburg did, but it’ll also likely have seats. And a bigger room. And a much hotter spotlight on the kid from New Orleans who didn’t even dream of writing a bucket list like the one he just destroyed but a few years ago. But that’s the thing about bucket lists: It’s not that you’re done once you’ve checked everything else off. You’re just ready to move on to the bigger, brighter thing, and Booker’s set to do just that with the shine of the last year winking at him in the rearview mirror.

Benjamin Booker plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg April 3, and will return to New York to play Governors Ball June 5. The MHW show is sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.

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