by madeleine peck
“Call me Money, ’cause I always got mine. Call me Lover, ‘cause I take my time” – Ben Prestage, a one-man-band
It is somewhat incongruous, in these technology-defined times, to stand outside a juke joint discussing the musical merits of the diddly-bo versus the cigar-box guitar. But, as the latter was predicated on the former, perhaps it makes a little more sense, and even more sense when the conversation is with a self-styled/self-taught one-man-band.
Ben Prestage is a musician originally from Mississippi (where his grandfather sharecropped), who’s a self-styled one-man-band. “I do real roots-oriented stuff,” said the performer, half-smiling through a big beard.
Growing up in rural south central Florida, Prestage said he was exposed to the “swamp music” of Florida, as well as the sounds of Mississippi country blues. The result is music that can be stretched and pulled in as many different directions as the artist sees fit, while always returning to classic, achy/belligerent blues chords.
Meeting the artist prior to his performance and then seeing him onstage confound the laws of nature. Offstage, Prestage is a sweet-natured, articulate musician willing to patiently explain the nuances of his craft to a relative neophyte. Onstage though, through some particular alchemy, he is both himself and all those who have come before him. This is not to place him as their equal, but perhaps as an acolyte, dedicating himself to an obscure calling, best transmitted live and onstage. It is to say his is another manifestation of mystical talent, in this case: Florida and Mississippi by way of Memphis.
It was in Memphis, that Prestage really brought his one-man-band act together. Busking on Beale Street, with Robert Belfour (of Fat Possum Records), and Richard Johnston (2001 International Blues Competition winner), made Prestage evaluate what he was interested in, and his own personal sound. It also probably helped that his neighbor was John Lowe, a Memphis legend famous for his handmade cigarbox guitars.
The cigarbox guitars Prestage plays are strung for both stereo guitar and bass, and Prestage plays them at the same time. Initially he said it was out of curiosity that he began playing the oddity, but soon, its possibilities became clear to him. Later, after mastering the intricacies of playing bass and guitar together, he added a drumkit that he plays by manipulating four pedals on the ground. “I could get the same power and energy as a full band.”
Watching him perform in his stocking feet onstage (white athletic socks if you’re into that kind of detail), what seems as if it could veer towards the gimmicky—it’s hard to think of a one-man-band and not think of Shel Silverstein’s eponymous poem and apply the line, “we’ll whirl and twirl, jiggle and prance so let’s start the music and give him a chance…”—becomes natural and even mesmerizing. Switching between guitars, banjos, and cigarboxes, all the while chattering away to the audience, he lets them have a little input (holler at the stage) and then says, “I’ma play a couplea banjo songs then we gone do blues all night long.” The crowd shouts its approval (especially the Georgian with the diamond-bezel watch and Parrothead shirt), and Prestage launches into a song that includes a sidebar of what a blunt is, and how to construct one at home.
Silverstein’s poem was illustrated with a picture of a guy, all knees and elbows, marching stalwartly along, to one can only assume, his own drum—attached to his chest like an extra belly. An image of absurdity not exactly designed to inspire anything beyond hilarity.
But Prestage transcends popular imagery the one-man-band as a kind of half-baked quack marching through town square making “music” and brings the thunder and the pain. On his right hand, he’s got a bunch of hot-rodesque flames, “Is that because you tear it up?”
“No,” he answers with a sheepish grin, “It’s because I thought it was a good idea when I was eighteen.”
The truth though is that he handles the strings like they’re on fire, and the drums kick like his granddaddy’s mule. Bass vibrates in the chest as Prestage howls on about the kind of love his woman likes, and how much he likes to give that love to her.
Eyes rolling in his head and tongue hanging out, Prestage sings about sex and love, marijuana and booze, in short, all the things that make up a full, funny life. If you get a chance, go see him. This time around he was well-worth the eight dollar cover charge at Mojo’s Kitchen on Beach, Blvd. Prestage will be appearing again here in NE Florida at the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival, May 1-3 at the St. Johns County Fairgrounds. Currently signed to Bluesboys and Divas out of Tallahassee, he’s got five albums out, including his latest, Real Music. You can also check him out on myspace: myspace.com/bprestage.
damnation and fury, sweetness and light
by madeleine peck