“No matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough.” ~~ Lebron James, May 31, 2017
Three years ago, Benjamin Booker took the music world by storm with his eponymous debut album. His fiery blues-rock captivated music listeners, and critics were universally applauding his talents. Consequently, Benjamin Booker landed on many “Best of” lists of 2014, including our very own. It was an instant classic, reminding people that guitar-driven records can still be great.
For his new album, Witness, Booker has set aside the Gary Clark, Jr. and B.B. King comparisons in favor of a more retro-soul approach. This isn’t to say the electrifying guitar solos have been eliminated, but rather they have been reduced. In their place are stories of America told through the eyes of the Orlando-born, New Orleans-based artist.
The album, though, starts off with “Right On You”, a blazing rocker that echoes Booker’s debut. Booker’s blistering guitar and urgent vocals blare through the speakers, blowing away the listeners with its intensity and ferocity. It’s one of the few fiery songs on the album, and it leads brilliantly into the Otis Redding-influenced, soul ballad, “Motivation”. The instrumentation on the song is fantastic, as Booker allows the strings and rhythms to carry the song while his own acoustic guitar takes a supporting role. The two songs, though, must be heard together, as the two reveal a young man at a crossroads in his life and contemplating whether he has placed himself above others.
The rest of the album, however, sees Booker focusing on the state of America. Poverty and inequality, racism and discrimination, hate and violence are themes that Booker tackles. The bluesy “The Slow Drag Under” grapples with the ghettoization of African Americans in impoverished communities and urban neighborhoods. A stark, soul-blues groove radiates across “Truth Is Heavy”, which is a devastating song about an abusive man trying to survive each day. He is both the assailant and a victim of his circumstances. The struggle for survival emanates from the soulful rocker “Overtime”. Despite its upbeat tempo, Booker recalls the messages told to him by others. “You can have it all if you just tried harder”, he says almost facetiously since not every one is created equal and equal opportunity is just a fleeting idea.
“Off The Ground” is a rip-roaring burner that is reminiscent of Booker’s debut. Yet like the other songs on the album, its lyrical content doesn’t emphasized all the greatness in the world. Instead, the adrenaline rush reflects a person on the run and taking a different path to find her escape. The gospel-blues track “Believe” takes the issue of inequality and racism even further. It is hopeful yet mournful, reflecting the reality that so many Americans face today. The lyrics on this track, in particular, are superb.
We will take you.
Gonna be part of something bigger.
And the things that stand in your way
Seem to slowly melt away.
Today the skies seem like much.
I’ve got dreams I can touch.
I’ll give them everything to keep them from going after.
I just want to believe in something, I don’t care if its right or wrong.
I just want to believe in something.
How am I to make it on my own?
While “Believe” may be Booker’s lyrical masterpiece, “Witness” will be remembered for its relevance and splendor. Featuring the legendary soul artist Mavis Staple, this powerful protest song is an extension to Marvin Gaye’s classic, “Can I Get A Witness”. In this case, though, Booker focuses on Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old Florida young man who was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer. The song is euphoric yet moving, and Booker’s lyrics are poignant, honest, and hard hitting.
Right now we could use a little pick-me up.
Seems like the whole damn nation is trying to take us down.
When your brother’s dying, mother’s crying, TV’s lying
All the reason’s in the world don’t mean shit to me now.
See we thought that we saw that he had a gun.
Thought that it looked like he started to run.
With lyrics like these, Booker doesn’t need a guitar to blow our minds. Sure, Witness isn’t the album that many were expecting or hoping, but it reveals a young man reaching new heights within his art and telling important stories at a crucial moment. In other words, Witness is Booker’s equivalent to Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home – an album that brings to light the social injustices that continue to affect America and the struggles that will exist for years if not decades later. Maybe not today nor tomorrow, but in time Witness will be remembered for being as a truly remarkable album for its honesty, realism, and timeliness.
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