Sleeper Agent and Ben Kweller Rule the El Rey


Alright, I’m gonna come out and say it: Sleeper Agent is hot.  They’ve recently released their first kick-ass album, Celebrasion, they just played Coachella, they’re in the middle of touring their sweet Kentucky faces off, and, thanks to the band’s ruthless energy, they make it seem pretty effortless.  Now that that’s out, I have another confession: I am (still) in love with Ben Kweller.  Since his first solo album Sha Sha came out 10 years ago (what?) to the recent release of his new album, Go Fly a Kite, it’s been pretty much nonstop adoration, and I am happy to report that is in fact still awesome and gorgeously talented.

Sleeper Agent and Ben Kweller made a great combination of acts.  Both bands have the ability to swing sweetly between minor-chorded, messy, loud garage tunes and major-chorded, earnest pop songs–all while somehow maintaining a single, cohesive musical identity.  Seeing this concert made me appreciate the unique fluidity that these bands have, and I can only assume the quality is a reflection of the artists’ open minds, laid back personalities, and insatiable curiosity.

Okay. The Sleeper Agent set. Here we go.  They begin their chaotic explosion of a performance with “Love Blood.” Already, since I last saw them play in September at the Bootleg Theater, they are more adjusted to the spotlight and take a more commanding presence of the stage.  They have matured. Their next song is “Force a Smile.”  The crowd is dancing a lot–this is unusual, in my experience, for Los Angeles.  Lead singer Alex Kandel addresses this later, pleasantly surprised that her band’s energy is translating to stuffy hipsters. The music is not much different from the record, except that it is live and deafening and the bass thumps in your skin and the minute changes or errors or whatever in the songs you love make it alive and that much better.  I believe German idealist philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin refers to this as the “Aura.” It’s that undeniable energy that comes with an original– something not mechanically reproduced–like seeing the Mona Lisa in person.  Anyways.

The next song is “Proper Taste.” While the afro-headed Scott Garner lays kindergarten keys over punky guitar riffs, I take delight in their lack of commercial image. In my head I realize how godawfully prentious this is, but I continue regardless, thinking how about much I like that they’re not wearing matching clothes and that they don’t have some grand theme to their performance. (Still interior monologue) But, neither does Ben Kweller. Or a lot of bands. Portugal. the Man doesn’t. White Denim doesn’t. Ok but they are all awesome. Who does? The Killers. They all wore skinny ties at one point. Florence and the Machine has that whole haute hippie thing going. But I love the Killers. And Florence. This is stupid. I have arrived at no conclusion other than this is fresh and pure and I am in a great moment which, although it’s not, seems devoid of all political and economic motive. Back to the music.

The band cranks out “Shuga Cane” and a cover of the xx‘s “VCRs.“  I love “VCRs.” When is the xx coming out with a new album? I need to Google this. Damn, this is a cool take on this song.  It’s like the xx for people doing cocaine.  Can you imagine someone on cocaine listening to the xx album? Hilarious. This is more like it.  Alex is going all Yeah Yeah Yeahs all over this track and I love it.  I think how a band covers a song is a good measure of that band.  Sleeper Agent flung their grit all over this track like Jackson Pollock on a blank canvas.

“Psst…Tony…we’re so hot right now…”

On the inevitable crowd favorite, “Get It Daddy.”  I am slightly sick of this song from too much mix cd action and radio play, however, that glorious Aura steps in and breathes new life into this song until I am giddy as a damn schoolgirl beneath its filthy presence. They play “Some White Blinds” (definitely a standout on Celebrasion). Imagine that bassline TIMES A ZILLION. That rollicking riff in the chorus? TIMES A GAJILLION. This is deep. They immediately switch into sentimental pop mode for “That’s My Baby.”

It is now that I scribble my third “Alex is f***ing awesome” note to myself, and I decide, in a Joycean epiphany, that Alex is the Katniss Everdeen of music (sorry I’m not sorry). YES. She is the strong and independent female lead who holds her own amidst the masses of grungy, menacing (a convenient mental construction) males who dominate the music scene.  She is not sexed up. She garners attraction based on her electric grit, her unwavering strength, and her confident humility. She guides co-vocalist/guitarist Tony onstage like Katness guides Peeta throughout The Hunger Games narrative. Her ability to rock out with the best parallels Katniss’ ability to wield weapons and kick ass.  But, both Alex and Katniss don’t strive to prove themselves powerful via masculine-identified actions (rocking out and using weapons); rather, they show that those abilities are cool and all, but, so what?  It’s that delicious nonchalance that makes both these girls so magnetic.  Anyways, enough with my feminist digression.

They play “Get Burned,” in which the band reaffirms that this is the perfect blend of garage and pop–just enough garage to feel totally underground and cool, and just enough pop to dance like a freak. They play “Bottomed Out” and finish big with “Be My Monster.” Alex summons the crowd to the front to share the last song’s “Aye-eee-aye-ee-ah-ah-ah-ahs” with her while Gardner rim-shots the crap out of a solo snare drum he has brought on stage.  Every member of the band is drenched in sweat as the curtain closes.

Ben Kweller (far right) and his band

(NOTE: I will not write as much about Ben as I did about Sleeper Agent, seeing as Ben is a) not exactly a “new band” and b) he cannot be accurately summated in any amount of words.)

After a brief set change and sound check, Ben Kweller takes the stage.  He looks like a cherubic Shaun White with his floppy red curls and swollen cheeks.  He plays songs from his new album Go Fly A Kite (released February 7, 2012 and following 2009′s Changing Horses) and he plays old songs such as “Sundress,” “Wasted and Ready,” “Commerce, TX,” and “On My Way.”  He sits before a piano to play a tear-jerking rendition of “Thirteen” and I note this mentally as a big moment in my short life.

On stage and in person, Ben exudes the most honest charm you have ever seen, and his brightly colored love for music has not faded over his 19 plus years of being in the business.  He, like Sleeper Agent, is a musical pendulum, swinging from blaring power riffs to rainy, tragic keys to folky acoustic strums.

By the time he finishes his encore with an extended, spastic version of “Penny on the Train Track,” it is clear that in whatever style he chooses, Ben injects a bright naivete, despite his musical wisdom.  This is important. It is how he and his songs remain alive after man years. His eyes never close and his mind never settles and, because of this, his love never dies. And, because of this, neither does mine.