Mutual Benefit @ Bowery Ballroom, 9/13/14

Mutual Benefit liveJordan Lee, the mastermind behind chamber-folk band Mutual Benefit, is a lot like his music. Or at least that’s how he carries himself on stage. He’s quiet and humble, with a goofy sensibility and a frail, effeminate voice. There’s a child-like sense of wonder about him and a playful openness in his demeanor. But all the while he seems always in control. He’s calm and self-assured and leads hi band with a silent power. His music is the same way, of course. If you’ve heard Lee’s debut full-length album, 2013’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, you’re familiar with his expansive song structures and delicate compositions that are just optimistic and fantastical as they are mature and nostalgic.

Taking the stage around 11pm on Saturday night, Lee led a five-piece band through effortless renditions of tracks from Love’s Crushing Diamond and 2011’s Cowboy’s Prayer EP (which was recently remastered and re-released), as well as tracks throughout Mutual Benefit’s back catalog. After sets from Bellows, a very talented but still inexperienced Brooklyn band, and Baltimore’s unimpressive Soft Cat, the poise and skill that Mutual Benefit brought to the stage was refreshing. As much as Jordan Lee embodied his music through his stage presence and in-between-songs banter, their performance didn’t come across as a carbon copy of the studio recordings. Trading in banjos and an eclectic mix of other acoustic instruments, Mutual Benefit relied on two electric guitars, synthesizers, an over-sized drum set, and their true secret weapon, violinist Jake Falby. This arrangement gave the songs a new energy. Rougher around the edges, louder, and more dramatic, without ever losing the humanity and passion that went into the original versions.

This was the final show of their tour, and you could tell that it was a special one for them. More than just finishing a series of performances, it was also a homecoming for Lee and his sister/bandmate. In fact, I stood next to their parents throughout the set, right in the front row. It added a sweetness to the whole experience. Mutual Benefit might be huge in the indie world today and they can pack a big venue like the Bowery Ballroom, but to the couple standing next to me, they were still just the little kids they watched grow up.

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About Scott Interrante

Scott Interrante currently studies Musicology at CUNY Hunter College where he focuses on issues of gender in pop music. He also writes for PopMatters, The Absolute, and Dear Song In My Head. Scott is an avid Taylor Swift fan and is currently re-watching all of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix.
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