While spirits are riding high around the impending annual pilgrimage to Austin for SXSW, it's a good time to be proud of Tulsa music. Not only do we have our recently announced essay contest winner Keline Pallez traveling down to Austin to report, there are a handful of Tulsa bands making the trek South (by Southwest) to represent what Tulsa has to offer this year.
Amongst the few (that I'm currently aware of) are Fiawna Forte' and Eric and the Adams, both fine representations of what we've got to offer in the indie rock and pop-rock genres.
Perhaps the most representative of Tulsa's history and evolution of the current music scene, however, is the Paul Benjaman Band. Although much has been made of the classic "Tulsa Sound" of the '70s, not much of that has truly carried over to Tulsa's current local music scene. Not until the past few years, that is.
Granted, Tulsa has evolved and so has the state of pop and rock music, as well as our local music scene. Throughout the past few years, however, there has definitely been a segment of our local music community that has taken on a new life and spin on the classic "Tulsa Sound."
Most of the musicians within what has been referred to as the "Organum Group" play with not only a technical expertise, but a reverence to vibe and tone--an intangible quality that you only truly know when you hear it. Appropriately enough, it's something you can often experience within the cozy confines of The Colony, but that one locale doesn't corner the market by any means.
Jesse Aycock and Dustin Pittsley definitely tap the soul of the Tulsa Sound, as does Matt Fisher's Vandevander project, albeit often in a much more aggressive manner. Perhaps the artist who has tapped into the classic vibe most closely and has still managed to evolve it into something current and vital, however, is Paul Benjaman.
Don't be misled into thinking that Benjaman is strictly a devotee to the old-school sound. He's a player with a long history, dating back to his first gig at the original Eclipse with Green Water Mirror ("Definitely a grunge band name, if ever there was one," he laughs now) back in 1994.
While he cringes a little now at the thought of grunge, his love of music and the scene also shines through when he talks about it.
"The '90s were an exciting time," Benjaman said. "There was a lot of stuff going on, and everybody was buying CDs and music. It was before pirating or downloading music and before you could even copy CDs. Clinton had just gotten into office and people thought music could change the world again--and it did, for a little while..."
The years following saw Benjaman's musical skills grow as he played a major role on the local scene as guitarist for Rewake. As that band was in its twilight years, however, Benjaman made a move to step from sideman role and into the spotlight as he formed his own group, the Paul Benjaman Band in late 2007.
Benjaman said that his primary inspiration for the band came from finally getting ahold of and absorbing some J.J. Cale records, followed by an infusion of Bob Wills. From there, it all seemed to come naturally for Benjaman as he assembled a crew of musicians that could all play together, yet shine individually.
Although three original members (Chris Combs, Josh Raymer and Matt Hayes) have eventually and subsequently migrated to Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, that hasn't changed the vibe of the band.
The current (and according to Benjaman, quintessential) line-up for group includes Andrew Bones on drums, Bo Halford on bass (both former Harmonious Monk members who also currently play in Panda Resistance) and Kahdija Goz on keyboards and vocals with the band's namesake fronting the band on guitar and vocals.
Although it's Benjaman's band and outlet, there's also a camaraderie and companionship within the band that lets each player express him or herself musically.
Benjaman said Goz is the band's secret weapon with her piano skills and soulful vocals.
"Oh, yeah -- she's totally the secret weapon, the secret sauce and everything else," he said.
It's ironic to realize this is Goz's first band experience. After crossing paths with her at after parties and hearing her play quietly in the background and even occasionally discussing the fact that she'd like to be in a band, Benjaman forcibly drafted her when he bought an old Rhoades keyboard from a friend and dropped it on her unceremoniously, telling her, "Your first gig is next week." She's been a valuable and undeniable asset to the band (and the local music scene) ever since.
While the band originally spread its wings by creating its own tunes and covering a number of classics, the covers have eventually made their way out of the set, leaving only a few to remain.
The band's debut disc is currently in the mixing stages, with a goal of having it finished and packaged in time to distribute at SXSW. Writing continues, however, and Benjaman said they already have nearly half of the material for the group's next disc, even before the debut has been mastered and released.
Although some bands might resent a strong comparison to the classic Tulsa Sound, Benjaman welcomes it, acknowledging the very thing that was attractive about the old scene is exactly what he's thriving in and enjoying about the current music climate. The high level of musicianship, paired with a camaraderie that pushed each player without becoming competitive.
"When I've got writers block, those are the sources I go back to (J.J. Cale and Bob Wills)," he said. "Usually it reminds me to simplify and find the groove..."
While Tulsa audiences have certainly taken notice and started praising the band (the group recently won the "Rock the 918" battle of the bands), it has also gained attention regionally with appearances at Wakarusa, Backwoods Bash and a few other festivals. As of late, though, the attention hasn't only been coming from jam-oriented festivals, as Paul Benjaman Band has added to the lineup of the North by 35 Festival in Denton in early March, followed by an Urban Tulsa-sponsored appearance at SXSW the following week.
With a new disc in the pipeline and the group's regional following starting to build (recent trips have taken the band to Colorado and St Louis), you can certainly expect to hear more about the band in the near future. With a focus on networking and making strategic connections at SXSW and appearances at other festivals, Benjaman's goal is to make playing (and specifically, touring) a full-time, paying gig.
From what we've witnessed so far, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable goal by any means. You can be sure that Urban Tulsa will be keeping a close eye (and ear) on the band, and we'll certainly be reporting back on the band's appearance at SXSW.
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