Benjamin Booker photo by Jaime Lewis; album cover by Neil Krug.
Benjamin Booker’s unique and occasionally eccentric blend of blues, soul, R&B, and rock first grabbed the attention of music lovers in 2012. His first album, 2014's Benjamin Booker, displayed a raw blend of roots-rock with a garage punk aesthetic. That gritty foundation remains intact on his second album, Witness.
The road to this second album was not an easy one for Booker, as he explained in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. Standing up to life challenges he’d encountered in the past, he carved the path to Witness. When thinking about his sophomore album, Booker found that something was wrong. He had nothing to say; a potentially devastating situation for a writer. He decided he needed to escape the negative elements in his path that robbed him of emotional clarity, so he went to Mexico City in search of solace and tranquility. He turned his back on the world, in an attempt to clear his mind.
In a deeply personal essay that Booker wrote for ATO Records, explaining the roots of Witness, he discusses the racism that he has faced throughout his life, from his birthplace in Virginia Beach, to growing up in Tampa, to his post-college life in New Orleans. For a long time, Booker found a way to cope and navigate himself through the ugliness of racism. But, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, things changed for him.
Fear infiltrated his being. He was no longer able to just get by. This fear was compounded by an incident that rocked Booker’s life. While riding his bike near his New Orleans home in late 2015, Booker was shot at and was forced to run, escaping death. Now, he had enough. He wanted out. (Booker no longer lives in New Orleans.) His exodus to Mexico City was a coping mechanism for him and, at first, it worked as he began to rid himself of some of the inner turmoil and torment. But just as he began to relax, the old wound was reopened when he experienced racism again in Mexico City. Dealing with this hideous situation head on, Booker devised a new plan: to become actively involved in confronting the racial issues that affected him.
He expressed himself on paper and he wrote about it in song. The first song to emerge was “Witness.” It not only would become the title track of his sophomore album, it was the centerpiece of the work. Witness is a song cycle of self-realization and rebirth. It opens with mayhem and turbulence as “Right On You,” a blistering dose of garage rock that announces that the time to react and act is now: it is “right on you.” This track seamlessly segues into “Motivation,” in which Booker wonders about his past decisions, ponders the future, and sings, “Am I making good choices?”
A similar sentiment can be found in “Overtime,” when Booker states, “No more waking up with a ‘What was I thinking’.” The gospel-inflected title track, which features Mavis Staples, opens with the line, “Am I gonna be a witness?” The song confronts racism directly, referencing Travon Martin's death: “See we thought that we saw that he had a gun” and “Now everybody that’s brown can get the f**k on the ground.”
In “Believe,” Booker addresses his desires at wanting to find something to believe in, “I just want to believe in something, I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.” He acknowledges past failures at personal relationships in “Truth Is Heavy.” He reveals his shaken confidence and negativity on “Carry," singing “I don’t need to carry all the things I’ve done wrong, aren’t there things I’ve done right?” Stylistically speaking, “The Slow Drag Under” is a snaky funk number, while “Off The Ground,” starts out acoustic, before exploding into a punkish, guitar-driven frenzy. This tune most resembles the overdriven sound of his first album.
The final statement on Witness is Booker’s declaration of change: “If I have my way, I’ll tear this building down,” he sings in “All Was Well.” Here he breaks free of the hurt, the demons, and the trials and decides to be a witness. It’s time to take charge, because you only live once.
In every way, Witness displays a growth in Booker’s talents, but it’s his songwriting that has taken the greatest leap forward. Booker, who wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, wants his voice to be heard clearly. His husky rasp of a voice comes through clearer than on his debut.
On Witness, Booker deals with the things that have touched his life for better and for worse. The album is a personal statement, but his experiences are ones that must be heard by everyone. Since his recent tumultuous experiences, Booker has found clarity and it’s all examined on this powerful new album.