Great New Music: Benjamin Booker – “Witness”

I fell in love with Benjamin Booker’s debut album a couple of years ago, and its amazing mix of blues, punk and soul. He rode the album to some critical and popular success, and then he sort of disappeared from view. This week he announced he is releasing a new album called Witness on June 2, and on his website he published quite a powerful statement about what’s been going on since we last heard from him.

He said that in February last year, he realized he “was a songwriter with no songs, unable to piece together any words that wouldn’t soon be plastered on the side of a paper airplane.” So he decided to spend some time alone in Mexico, and it worked. Far away from home, away from the news, politics and his friends, he felt a “weightlessness” that helped him write again.

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Then one night at a bar he got thrown to the ground in a racial confrontation. At that moment everything crystallized in his mind. He knew that the Mexico trip was just an escape. He was running away, and he was running away from fear. The rash of hate crimes against Black Americans was “breaking” him, and “my lack of effort to do anything about it was eating me up inside”.

So the new album represents Booker’s desire to confront the problem “and do more than just watch”. He resolved to bear witness to the truth, and the first single “Witness” pretty much spells it out. It’s a considerable departure from the stuff on the first album, and he can now add gospel to the menu of styles he can deliver convincingly.

He even brings in Mavis Staples for added credibility, but I think he’s got the goods even without her. The song is gospel-flavored for sure, but there are elements like the Rock beat rhythm section and a recurring piano motif that makes it sound distinctive and belonging completely to Booker himself. Inspiration and motivation can work wonders with any creative person, and I’m looking forward to the new album to see just how far it will take this extremely talented artist.




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