Review: BEN LEE at The Adelaide Festival Summerhouse, Elder Park, Adelaide

Review By Lisa Lanzi


Thanks to La Niña's influence Adelaide’s weather requires adding warm layers as opposed to enduring heat waves of over 40 degrees for days at a time during Festival season. Thus sitting in the glorious Adelaide Festival Summerhouse, open to the sky and the breeze, was a little challenging - even Ben Lee exclaimed that his fingers were cold.


Over the years the Festival has established memorable late night venues with the amazing technical production genius we are fortunate to have here in Adelaide. There was the awesome Red Square during Barry Kosky’s 1996 Festival built from 120 shipping containers stacked seven stories high; Barrio the work of producer/director team Geoff Cobham and Ross Ganf in 2013; Universal Playground, Persian Garden, The Artist Bar Jetty, Lola's Pergola, The Palais and last year’s quirky underground space The Workshop. The Summerhouse, with excellent stage and lighting and enclosed in diaphanous white curtaining is a demountable, lightweight pavilion designed by Tina Engelen and Will Fung of Co-ap Architects (Sydney), who won a design competition for the project. It is host to some fifteen live performances as well some on screen works over the course of the Festival.


Tonight, Ben Lee sauntered on stage, picked up his guitar and proceeded to charm the safely distanced and excited crowd, announcing how thrilled he was to be performing live again after the Covid19-lows of 2020. He did admit that he had had quite a long time to ‘conceptualize’ the show (“The Foo Fighters might have their lasers and all…”) and proceeded to intro his lo-fi ‘band’: a JVC cassette player set primly on a stand beside him. And yes, actual cassette tapes were inserted and played as backing tracks on some songs during the set. Again, huge kudos to the techs for ensuring the sound was brilliant!


A fine beginning was Into The Dark (2005) followed by Love Me Like The World Is Ending (2007) from the album Ripe and featured in the American TV series Life Unexpected.. Both are fine examples of this artist’s lyric-driven work which has made Lee’s songs popular as additions to soundtracks for film, TV and advertising.


Ache For You, from Awake Is The New Sleep (EP 2005), was a tender anthem with the JVC bandmate providing excellent drumbeat backing. Part of Ben Lee’s appeal is his easy and natural connection with an audience so that even in a large venue it feels intimate and relaxed. He amusingly related that he had been to seen two Festival shows, A German Life (“traumatizing”) and Pulse (“where dancers threw themselves at each other”) both of which gave him pause and certainly “stretched his psyche” - he had assumed that he would simply have a few chilled days away from the family!


Hailing from his 1998 album Breathing Tornados the song Cigarettes Will Kill You is a wry and melancholic song about heartbreak and written after he had recently left Noise Addict, the band he joined at thirteen. It is a song that many people hold dear if they were going through similar journeys in the 90s. Another two songs follow, again from Ripe, Lee's sixth album. Is This How Love’s Supposed To Feel echoes the catchiness and simplicity that many of his songs elicit and which helped give a new direction to Australian music, then Ripe with the immortal lines “Your love got big, your jokes got worse each afternoon, like bacon at a Bar Mitzvah” had the audience chuckling.


Referring again to the year that was 2020, Lee played two new songs which he had been working on : Parents Get High and Born For This Bullshit. The second was dedicated to Michael Gudinski, Australian music industry entrepreneur and founder of Mushroom Records who died suddenly this week. Lee had earlier sent some of these new songs to Gudinski and had a few text exchanges with the man, both agreeing that Born For This Bullshit is about what it takes to be an individual in this world.


Gamble Everything for Love was a popular song and EP title released in December 2004 by Lee’s own record label, Ten Fingers, and was used in the US television series The Blacklist. Next, it was the audience’s turn to choose between two songs for which Lee had the last cassette tracks in his kit: I Am a Sunflower won out but he also played Nothin’ Much Happens, both from 1988’s Breathing Tornados. The latter song was rendered in a more tuneful and less repetitive style than the original recording with some skilful key changes during the guitar solo.


This set at The Adelaide Festival Summerhouse was a fitting celebration of Ben Lee’s twenty five years in the music industry. He teased us with the option to dispense with the ‘traditional’ artist’s exit from stage prior to being encouraged to return for encores and simply played three more songs : Catch My Disease, Happiness (with a crazy, accelerated ending reminiscent of The Court of King Caractacus) and We’re All In This Together. There was huge applause and much dancing in place and a simple farewell : “This has been really fun - thank you guys (sic) for making it out tonight”. No, thank YOU Ben Lee for a delicious, musical interlude.


Image Supplied