Published Jan 23, 2020It's hard to believe that the 15-year-old wunderkind the Beastie Boys signed to Grand Royal all those years ago is now a 41-year-old man. But Ben Lee wears his age well, covering his still-youthful face with a furry beard and continuously flashing the smile that made him a teenage heartthrob in the '90s.
Lee has been looking back to those salad days recently, not so much to his own music, but to the songs that inspired him in his formative years. His latest album, Quarter Century Classix, finds the Aussie singer-songwriter covering the songs he loved all those years ago — ones he deems "the classics." One could argue that they were the best group of songs on a record from last year, but while they didn't belong to him, Lee instilled his heart and soul into the recordings, putting his own signature spin on them.
Walking on stage alone, he quickly acknowledged that it had been ages since he'd played Toronto (five years, to be exact), mistakenly calling it "T-Dot" before getting an update from the crowd that it's now referred to as "the 6ix." He questioned if no other area codes in Canada ended in six, before joking that Torontonians were presumptuous for claiming the number. To maximize the Toronto talk, he also added how he experienced culture shock when he learned he had rented local comedian duo Kenny and Spenny's apartment on AirBnb for his stay in town.
Kicking the set off with "I Wish I Was Him," a song he wrote in his teen alt-rock band Noise Addict about idolizing Evan Dando, Lee gave a commentary while he performed. "I always start playing this song and then realize how out of date the references are. We don't really pay for music today. And when I say thongs, I mean flip flops, not underwear."
After a couple more solo cuts, he ventured into the covers. "I made a new record with a very limited and specific demographic," he explained. "You guys make up the majority of it." Joining him off and on in the set, Jen Furches, from opening act Spring Summer, helped sing backup and play synths. First up was the Archers of Loaf's "Web in Front," followed by the Breeders' "Divine Hammer," which he clarified had nothing to do with his song "Away With the Pixies," nor the Pixies-referencing "Pop Queen," something he once explained to Kim Deal.
Once he finished Awake Is the New Sleep's "No Right Angles," Lee introduced a mini-set of brand new material, admitting that he's been examining his role as a singer-songwriter on the wrong side of 40, but feeling at home in a period when artists like Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits did their best work. He then paid tribute to Waits in new song "A Crooked Tree," followed by the Pavement-and-Beck-referencing "Slowdown."
The set didn't come without its flubs, however. Lee required some written lyrics to perform these new songs, which didn't always help him out, coming off as still works in progress. But he smiled and apologized his way through the attempts. When he began Sonic Youth's "Sugar Kane," Furches was playing a different melody, which he politely corrected her on and guided her through. They nailed it the second go around and then went into Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle," a tribute to the recently deceased singer-songwriter whose birthday it happened to be.
Because there was no green room to hide in, Lee explained that there'd be no encore. He had some trouble finishing "Love Me Like the World Is Ending," acknowledging that it was "a mess" because his voice was shot from all of the "screaming songs," so he asked the modest-sized crowd to sing it with him. He then rewarded them with fan favourite "Catch My Disease," changing the words to "I was backstage in the 6ix," ad libbing Waxahatchee, Drake and the Spring Summer into the final verse, then on a tangent, added, "They literally didn't play me on the radio this morning because of transit issues," a hilarious jab at getting cut in order to report on the city's subway mishap earlier in the day. He finished with a bumpy "Happiness," that got both better and wilder — he kept repeating the coda, getting faster each time — along the way.
Lee's performance may have been far from perfect, but the way he was able to rebound so quickly and recognize his mistakes with a grin made the show almost more endearing than if he hadn't. And that's the thing about Ben Lee; after all these years he's still as endearing and affable as he was when we first met him.