A violin is blown into our eardrums as an upright bass bellows down the scale. Listeners lean forward in their chairs, clutching their guitars, harps, and ukuleles. You can see everyone here — from the loyal locals to the transplants just off the plane. Outside, cars hug each other’s bumpers and inch down the street. But here? We’ve made our own listening room.
Benji Lamar is a regular at this open mic night. He’s tested his rockabilly jams, raw waltzes, and cathartic ballads on the bungalow’s front porch. When he’s working his day job, his music students call him Benjamin. But when he plugs in his guitar, he’s City of Decades.
This evening, Benji soared through “Mind Bug,” a song from his latest album R.I.P Rock ‘N’ Roll. The modest sound system didn’t have the same verve as it would in a bustling bar downtown, but it still found a way to resonate with listeners.
“Excuse me, but did you say ‘a blockade against closure?’” a woman asked. “The lyrics to your song?”
“I had no idea what she was talking about,” Benji laughed as he remembered this moment. “I think those lyrics were pretty raw and unedited.”
Benji said he wrote nearly 80 songs over the years, but only 10 of them made it to his final project. Some, he admitted, were never meant to be heard by anyone other than himself. For Benji, songwriting is cathartic and open mics are like support groups.
That’s why he decided to donate half of the album’s proceeds to Capital Area Counseling. The Austin organization provided him with affordable mental healthcare at a time when he needed some extra help. “I guess they diagnosed me with a quarter life crisis,” he chuckled. “Having anxiety or depression is like a family secret that everyone has,” Benji added, “There’s no shame in it. Everyone needs someone to talk to.”
Despite their therapeutic roots, Benji’s songs are far from crying-in-your-beer. On the surface, the music dances to a rock and roll rhythm. But when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a bit of gypsy jazz, Elvis-style Americana, and nostalgic ‘90s pop punk. Subjects range from the subtly political to the deeply personal. His track “Timbercreek” rolls like a classic anthem but rings with piercing vulnerability. He said it’s about his experience leaving Mormonism at the age of 17, but listeners often craft their own interpretation.
In fact, Benji said he gets the most insightful perspectives from fans who aren’t even old enough to enter the venues – his students.
“Mid-twenties friends are coming to shows, and I love them…. but how much of my music is getting absorbed in their ears?” He wondered. “You have all these things that jade you as an adult from really listening. When you’re a kid and you really plug yourself in, that’s when [musicians] really leave an imprint.”
His students, some as young as six years old, have said that “Minor Riot” “makes them want to get up and do something.” This track grooves with jazzy bass lines and soaring fiddle ornamentations, but underneath this aesthetically smooth melody simmers a passionate political protest. The lyrics are peppered with subtle attacks and frustrations, but you’ll hear it really burst forward in the bridge. Benji’s voice takes on a caustic edge and he refuses to simply sit pretty. The young listeners aren’t likely to pick up on the layered nuance, but they have reported that it “makes them want to get off the couch.” And isn’t that ultimately the same thing?
Some performers might roll their eyes at these fans, but Benji feels like there’s nothing more rock and roll.
“When you can catch a human being at a time when their mind is that malleable, I think that’s when you become a little immortalized.” Benji said, “So now I’m all about it.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if he’s performing at a bustling bar downtown or a quaint eastside bungalow. He just wants to keep inspiring – even if rock and roll is dead.
Click here to purchase a copy of City of Decades’ latest album, R.I.P Rock ‘N’ Roll. A portion of all sales will benefit Capital Area Counseling.