by Mike Corrigan

The interview for this story began, as they do with some frequency, with a question directed back at the interviewer, one that immediately betrayed the extent of Ben Kweller's knowledge of little old Spokane.

"I was wondering if there were any lakes in Spokane to go fishing in," he queried. "Me and Fred, my drummer, love fishing. It's like our one getaway when we're on tour."

Though obviously not from around these parts (he's East Texas born and bred), Kweller and his band will be making a stop in Spokane this Wednesday night at Fat Tuesday's to turn local audiences on to his melodic, off-kilter, completely irresistible songs and casually brilliant performance style. (That fairly describes the evening's premium opening act, Brendan Bensen, as well.)

With an album on ATO/RCA (Sha Sha) drawing critical and popular praise, national tours and television appearances on Austin City Limits, the 21-year old Kweller has reached a level of success that takes most performers years to attain. But then, he has been at it for years. Back when he was just 15, Kweller led a Dallas-area punk band called Radish to local stardom and, eventually, to a major-label deal with Mercury.

"It was kind of a shitty label at the time," he admits. "But we were like, cool. I mean, we were just these small-town kids in high school. We learned so much about the way shit works, and I saw how it's very easy to get taken advantage of."

Especially being that young.

"Especially being that young. There were so many times that I wanted to speak up for my own band -- with ways I wanted to be imaged, certain interviews where I would have rather done some kid's fanzine than The New Yorker. But I feel really fortunate that I got thrown into the big business music industry thing early. I mean, if I had gotten my way all the time, who knows, I might have tuned out like Justin Timberlake."

Radish disintegrated in 1999, sending Kweller to NYC to write, record on his computer and possibly get noticed. Get noticed he did, as his home-recorded song collection, Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller, circulated around NYC's anti-folk and punk scene, eliciting praise from such indie-rock notables as Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield and Jeff Tweedy. Recognition first led to opening gigs for Dando and others and finally to a recording deal with Dave Matthews' quasi-indie label, ATO.

"I'm not out there to break any musical ground," Kweller says about the songs on Sha Sha. "I just want to write good songs that people can relate to weirdly, and that are easy to sing along with and have harmony and stuff. I mean, all the music I love -- the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, the Violent Femmes, Nirvana, Pavement, Carol King, Bob Dylan, Neil Young -- it's all in there."

For someone barely old enough to order a beer legally, Kweller possesses -- in addition to a formidable songwriting talent and unassuming charm -- a surprisingly keen insight into the nature of fame.

"There's a big difference between success and fame," he says. "A lot of people sort of mix those up. I'd say Madonna is famous. Whereas me and all these other people are successful. I feel that you can be successful in any field. Doctors and lawyers are successful. You can be a successful fisherman. When you are doing something you love and you're able to do that one thing without waiting tables or something, that's success. I have this one job and it makes me happy. I'm able to write the songs I wanna write and make the albums I wanna make. That's all I've ever wanted."

And a place to fish, of course. Fortunately, when you're on your way to Spokane, all you gotta do is bring your poles.

"Yeah, man," laughs Kweller. "We got 'em."

Breaking the Leash -- With his two breakthrough CDs, How Do You Like Me Now?! and Pull My Chain, Toby Keith has become known as one of the rare mainstream country artists who is willing to test country's formulas and even court controversy. He'll bring his swaggering style to the Spokane Arena on Sunday.

For instance, the hit title song from his 1999 CD, How Do You Like Me Now?!, was a tale of a guy who becomes a music star and returns home to thumb his nose at the women and friends who would have nothing to do with him when he was just a regular Joe.

"I Wanna Talk About Me," a chart-topping hit from his 2001 CD, Pull My Chain, was even edgier. The song had the potential to alienate female fans, as Keith harped (good-naturedly, it should be noted) about the proclivity of women to talk relentlessly about themselves, often at the expense of paying attention to the men in their lives.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that several months ago, Keith found himself in a battle with ABC television and the network's news anchor, Peter Jennings, over his song, "Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)."

Keith originally had been scheduled to perform the song, the lead single from his current CD, Unleashed, on an ABC July 4 special. But after hearing the song, Jennings took issue with the lyrics, and Keith was pulled from the show.

Keith is aware that he has critics who find the song's blunt sentiments simplistic and lacking in insight or depth. He has a ready response: & quot;I would just say this song wasn't written for you. This song was written for our military, and then America made it their song. If you don't like it, then that's cool. That's why it's America. You can go listen to something else. & quot;

The lyrics were certainly provocative enough to generate attention. Written in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, "Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue" in no uncertain terms supported retaliation by the United States. One passage gained notoriety: "This big dog will fight / When you rattle his cage / And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way."

Keith has said that if ABC had simply let the decision to take him off the show pass without further fanfare, the situation might have faded away quietly. Instead, ABC issued a statement saying Keith was never confirmed for the special and that travel conflicts would prevent him from performing.

But Keith wasn't going to take the rap for not appearing on the show, and soon it was clear that Keith had many supporters. Letters and e-mails poured into ABC. Radio stations started protest campaigns that resulted in Jennings and the network receiving shipments of boots.

And "Courtesy Of The Red, White & amp; Blue" had all the exposure it needed to storm the country music charts. When Unleashed was released in late July, it went straight to No. 1 on Billboard magazine's album chart.

Keith thinks his success may be starting to loosen up the play-it-safe formulas of country music.

"It's really, really hard, when I've accomplished what I've accomplished. And you still hear that in meetings -- you hear them fire these conversations up and they'll just start going, 'Well, if we do this or we do that,' and you can feel them gravitate toward that soft [safe spot]," Keith says. "And I'll just grin from ear to ear and shake my head, and they go, 'Of course that won't work with you.'"

Publication date: 02/06/03

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