Rhian Benson not there yet
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 15, 2002) – Rhian Benson clearly has star quality. She’s drop-dead gorgeous in an exotic, multiracial fashion – her mother is Welsh and her father Ghanaian – that publicity photos don’t even begin to capture, because in person she exudes maturity, intelligence and confidence belying her youthful 25 years. The daughter of musicians, she is a natural performer, at ease on stage with an effortless ability to connect with a crowd, whether she is singing an intimate jazz ballad or cheerleading over a danceable funk tune.

She has a rich, honeyed voice with a four-octave range that boasts inordinate color and personality in the bottom registers. Performing two sets at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, she was backed by a terrific five-piece band led by bassist/musical director Alphonso Johnson, whose credits include Santana, Weather Report and the Crusaders.

Her music boasted enormous stylistic range, from Irving Berlin to Cyndi Lauper to Bob Marley. That was both a positive and a negative. It made for an eclectic evening. Her first set was more introspective, emphasizing ballads and slower tunes, including a wonderfully atmospheric bit of original Afropop called “The Spirit,” featuring chanting and a traditional pulse. She also offered a rendition of Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music,” although the hypnotic delicacy of her performance was derailed by an atrocious, eardrum-shattering sound mix, engineered not by Helsinki’s perfectly capable house engineer, Peter Lindstrom, but by a hired gun brought along by her band who should go back to running sound for alternative-rock bands and leave the real music to someone with more sensitive ears, like Lindstrom.

In any case, to its credit, band management was responsive to complaints, and things sounded much better during Benson’s second set. Backed only by electric piano, she opened with a very jazzy arrangement of Marley’s “Jammin’,” which could have easily been mistaken for George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” before the band joined in and took the song back to its Jamaican roots with some heavy reggae beats. For the finale, however, they took it back into jazz territory, losing the chunky beats and swinging the tune on the way out.

Benson followed with “Everything,” an upbeat, funk original featuring tight vocal harmonies by keyboardist Dapo Torimiro. This was slick, jazzy r&b, more Steely Dan than P-Funk, but it got some people up dancing, and except for a short, unplugged set midway through, the rest of the night was a party at the club.

Benson also offered “The One,” a slick, pop/r&b tune in the Babyface vein that featured Joel Whitley on acoustic guitar. Her version of Lauper’s “Time After Time,” backed only by Whitley and Torimiro on acoustic guitars and David Leach on percussion, featured some of her best jazz singing of the evening – with her emphasis on the lower registers she made this well-worn contemporary standard truly her own.

She brought the show to a close with “Sing to the Child,” “Gold Sky” and “Invincible,” a series of inspirational funk/r&b tunes that could have easily had a theater or arena full of fans up and dancing.

Benson is clearly still finding her way. Many of the arrangements were slick, even almost generic, and based on the prevailing style of soul-pop one hears on contemporary hit radio. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t bring some of her own personality to the material, even if at times it came perilously close to aping the jazz/r&b formula that Jill Scott has used for her climb to the top. Benson’s too smart to be anyone’s flavor-of-the-week creation, her heart swings to the beat of a jazz drummer, and she has the tools and makings of an original diva.

She’s just not there, yet.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 17, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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