“It’s great to be here in Philadelphia,” Ben Vaughn told today’s Free At Noon audience. “I came here for the weather. I went from fire to ice.”
It is absolutely too soon to be making jokes about the California wildfires that have left 66 people dead and over 200 missing over the past week; murmurs and groans in the audience let Vaughn know that, even if his status as a Cali resident gets him a marginal pass on the quip. But like a true comedian — or a musician for whom witty repartee is a big part of their act — Vaughn is unafraid to fall on his face, get back up, and keep the show moving.
In town for the weekend to headline two nights at new Manayunk venue The Locks at Sona, Vaughn took the crowd on a ride across his three-decades-strong discography, from novelty tunes like “I Dig Your Wig” from 1986’s The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn — a record that lent its name to Vaughn’s weekly freeform radio program that airs Saturdays on WXPN — to somewhat more sincere fare like “Too Sensitive For This World” from 1990’s Dressed in Black, which Vaughn noted has seen a second life via a cover.
“You ever hear of this band Deer Tick?” Vaughn asked the audience who, being largely comprised of WXPN listeners, answered in the affirmative. “They called me up and wanted to know if I was still alive. For publishing reasons, you know.”
His sense of humor is an odd mix of cockiness and self-depreciation, though watching the performance of “Too Sensitive,” you can see how Vaughn earns the former trait. The band rambled across the power ballad with tight precision, then gradually worked the volume way down to barley a whisper as Vaughn delivered an ultra low-key guitar solo in a pindrop-quiet environment. (They’d previously used this trick to great effect on a solid performance of “Jerry Lewis In France” from 1987’s Beautiful Thing, but with Vaughn soloing on harmonica instead of guitar, and the silence broken by one audience member shouting “attaboy, Ben!”)
Backing him were four players breaking the standard guitar/bass/drum mold. Gus Cordovox’s accordion playing lent a vintage Euro/boho flare to the set throughout, particularly on the title track to 2016’s Piece de Resistance, a fun if somewhat tacky number where Vaughn sings random words and phrases in French, strung together nonsense-style, as he gesticulated and mugged in a trilby hat.
C.C. Crabtree juggled a pair of saxophones, with the baritone coming into particularly prominent play on the latter half of the set when Vaughn dug into 1988’s Ben Vaughn Blows Your Mind.
And the rhythm section of bassist Mike Vogelmann and drummer Seth Baer gave the performance an unflappable core, carrying the band all the way to the set-closing “Tape a Nickel to the Tonearm” from Resistance.
Listen back to Ben Vaughn Quintet’s Free at Noon performance and check out a photo gallery below; tickets are still available for this weekend’s shows at The Locks at Sona, more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
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