Singing the blues about father and son relationships
St James Studio, London SW1
BY T H E t i me we l l dressed New Yorker Benjamin Scheuer h a s f i n i s h e d h i s 70-minute song cycle he has shed jacket, tie, braces, shoes and socks. And although he is never quite as naked as the six guitars that share the stage with him, his relationship with his late father that defines, frustrates, angers and inspires him is laid completely bare.
Anyone with six guitars had better play them well. Scheuer is virtuosic — a standard reached, his opening number tells us, after his mathematician father Rick built him a “cookietin banjo” when he was 10 years old. It had strings made of rubber bands and a strap that used to be a red tie. Scheuer’s ambition was then to play guitar like his dad, a mathematician who might have preferred to be a musician. But his father’s ambition is for his son to be better at maths at the expense of music. And so a rift forms between father and son that never closes.
This is a show to which anyone with a dead dad can particularly relate. Scheuer sings about absence with tender insight. His father died suddenly just after a row and he spent the next couple of decades attempting to reconcile the eulogies extolling his father’s kindness and humanity with the chilly, distant figure who made his son feel small.
It’s a narrative told between songs in a sonorous speaking voice that is almost as pleasurable to listen to as when Scheuer sings. There is something of a Paul Simon acoustic here, but also of Simon’s gift for attaching complex thoughts to melody. And much of the lyric-writing is drawn from equally complex dialogue — between Scheuer and his widowed mother Sylvia, or with his girlfriend Julia, at whose behest the singer-songwriter once visited his father’s grave to attempt some kind of reconciliation.
But where the storytelling and singing become really interesting is when Scheuer sets the subject of his being diagnosed with cancer to his music. Without that renewed urgency, the show, directed by Sean Daniels, was heading towards wallowing in the kind of rites-of-passage lessons learned that Americans never find embarrassing. Yet the sheer bravery of setting the theme of chemotherapy to music deserves all the recognition Scheuer gets. And for doing so with such cleverness and melodic invention.
SCHEUER SETS HIS CANCER DIAGNOSIS TO MUSIC
Strum-derful: Benjamin Scheuer