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Live review: Ben Lee at Largo at the Coronet

February 18, 2009 |  3:33 pm

Ben Lee at Largo

Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee picked a heck of a year to start pitching an album with a first track titled "What's So Bad (About Feeling Good?)."

While the campfire poptimism of Lee's latest record, "The Rebirth of Venus," lands with all the socioeconomic timing of “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” his round-table show at Largo at the Coronet on Tuesday night revealed an eager cadre of fans -- an audience for whom modest indie tunes about Lee's affection for music, the pleasures of singing and the virtues of hokey lyrics are enough to keep their spirits up while standing in line for the dole.

Scenesters of a certain vintage (those who remember Liz Phair's cameo on Lee's "Away With the Pixies") will be pleased to know that he's grown into quite the elder statesman among Largo's smartypants songwriter set. Decked out in a Dylan-ish mop of curls, a green blazer and Run-DMC T-shirt, Lee as frontman was as much the attraction as Lee the songwriter.

He punctuated nearly every song with some hint of self-awareness, whether shooting smirks in the direction of his lead guitarist during an indulgent knob-twiddling solo or changing forgotten lyrics to Largo-centric favorites.

During the performance, Lee sold "Venus" as a sort of feminist tribute record, and he backed that sentiment up with his choice of collaborators. Throughout his set, Lee turned his microphone over to no less than three female singer-songwriters: his bandmate Lara Meyerratken, who performs on her own as El May; actress Mandy Moore, who as a harmonizer could become the Emmylou Harris of the Hollywood hipsterati; and Gabriella Cihomsky, a saucer-eyed 15-year-old singer-songwriter from San Diego.
From Lee's end, a rousing tribute to Yoko Ono and the set-closing "Song for the Divine Mother of the Universe" cemented the gesture. The pop-commune feel of Lee's live set helped it come off as earnest rather than cloying.

Lee's longtime knack for sly sincerity doesn't have much of an obvious place in today's pop or indie world. He's obviously no Beyoncé on the mike, yet he's too melodically witty for the Bon Iver beardo crowd that dominates the modern indie scene. But when he got around to "Sing," in which Lee has the audacity to suggest that if you "sing for the people who can't, it'll help them survive," he liked it so much he had to play it twice in a row.

His band grinned double takes at one another and started the song over again, and Largo got another three minutes of thinking Lee might be right.

-August Brown

Photo by Lori Shepler / LAT