There’s something about Donny: the joy of Donny Benét in 2018

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Donny Benét transcends novelty with his subtle, calculated approach to making great music while having great fun.

The first time I saw Donny Benét I was suspicious.

The novelty of his first couple of film clips had bred just as much cautiousness as it had curiosity. Was his Italo-disco infused indie pop dripping with irony? Was there anything genuine here, or just a hipster trying to be funny?

 

He played a small club called Alhambra Lounge armed with a backing track and a single modular synthesizer. I don’t remember what the opening song was, but I’ll never forget the face-melting synth solo that he ripped out part-way through it.

I had no prior knowledge of his talent as a musician, so it was immediately eye-opening. It put me in my place and served as an immediate statement of intent; this guy was having fun, but he was taking it seriously.

A couple of years later, in early 2014, Benét took up a Friday night residency the Sydney Festival. I saw one show, which turned out to be an astounding, unadvertised Prince tribute. This was my first exposure to Benét on bass and it proved to be as illuminating as that first show.

In other hands, Benét’s schtick of the displaced 80s b-grade disco artist would almost certainly be overwrought.

I’m a Prince tragic and generally pretty harsh on anyone who tries to replicate what he does. But Benét and band nailed it. It took my appreciation of this mysterious Sydneysider to a new level.

More recently, his headlining set at the Double J BIGSOUND party last year, where he played his new songs – most of which were still unknown – to a heaving, sweaty crowd was a lot of fun.

But his album launch show in Brisbane last weekend, with his full band in tow, felt like a true zenith. The ultimate nail in the coffin that assuaged all doubt of the sheer genius of Benét in 2018.

I’d be interested to know if anyone who has seen Donny Benét on this current album launch tour has had a bad time.

I wasn’t exactly in the best space to enjoy a light-hearted set of disco inspired novelty soft rock.

I’d injured myself on a run the day before. My football team had just been thumped (again). The venue was crowded, and I could barely see a thing.

But the party was perfect.

Donny led the band, showing off those prodigious bass skills and his subdued charm as a showman. His backing players were so adept that I was suspicious more than once as to whether they were miming.

They replicated the slick 80s pop sound of Donny’s latest record The Don so perfectly. Like everything about the Donny Benét experience, the name The Donny Benét Showband seems in jest, but makes perfect sense when you see them in action. They came across like hired guns, the kind of band Michael McDonald would have flown to the Bahamas to make a solo record in the mid-80s.

And the songs are genuinely great. The slinky bassline of ‘Konichiwa’ is a masterpiece in and of itself. The urgent pulse of ‘Working Out’ is a perfect soundtrack to both the image obsessed 80s and the image obsessed 2018. ‘Santorini’ is both heartbreaking and kind of hilarious.

 

Donny Benét’s music doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it is made with the utmost dedication to craft and proficiency.

Proficient musicality has been a big part of the Donny Benét story since day one.

“Both my parents are music teachers,” Benét told Double J’s Tim Shiel earlier this month. “Dad had a room full of instruments and we'd all have a little go at that.

“We used to have little family band rehearsal nights, which were pretty cool. He was very supportive and instrumental in getting myself and my brothers playing instruments. I tried trumpet, piano accordion and, finally, got forced into playing bass, which was probably a nice mistake.

Donny Benét’s music doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it is made with the utmost dedication to craft and proficiency.

In recent years Benét has appeared on records and on stage as a bassist for the likes of Sarah Blasko, Jack Ladder, Olympia, Bob Evans and Oh Mercy.

“I love music. It's the only thing I know how to do well and enjoy doing, so hopefully I can keep on doing it for quite a long time.”

Dig deep enough and you’ll learn just how deep Donny’s musicality goes. I won’t reveal it here, but let’s just say not all the music is made under the Benét alter-ego, and if you were to mix in certain different circles, you might come across a familiar face playing bass with some of the country’s most esteemed musicians.

But don’t dig too deep. You deserve to enjoy this project for what it is, in the way that its intended to be enjoyed.

Don’t read too much into it.

There is such immense talent evident in every aspect of the Donny Benét experience – the vision of the character, the steadfast adherence his narrative and the musicality of Benét himself all combine to make something truly genius.

In other hands, Benét’s schtick of the displaced 80s b-grade disco artist would almost certainly be overwrought. Its silliness turned up to levels that make it dumb and offensive.

But Donny Benét handles this project with a subtle and calculated approach that means it retains its fun, but never becomes grating or feels laboured.

In 2018, we can go and see pop heroes of the 80s play wineries and maybe even arenas. But most times, it all feels a bit too earnest. Donny Benét fills a strange gap in which there’s both great respect for vintage 80s pop and soft rock, without the tiresome faux-sincerity or futile attempt to steer away from the cheesiness that typified their most classic work of that era.

The middle ground between novelty and genuine is tenuous and weird, and it’s likely to make people uncomfortable. That’s where a project like this shines. It’s inclusive, it’s easy to enjoy on its surface and practically impossible to understand once you peel back its layers.

The show on the weekend truly felt like a long-lost has-been (or never-quite-was) finding a small amount of fame on one special night in Brisbane. It goes far deeper than that, but the fantasy is more fun than the reality. And that fantasy might well be the greatest gift that Donny Benét offers.

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