Roni Benise returns to Jacksonville
Words by Shelton Hull
When Roni Benise comes to town, you’re gonna hear about it well in advance, and his concert at the WJCT Soundstage on Oct. 10 is no exception. It’s the first of five shows in Florida, coming right after a run through his old stomping-grounds of Southern California. “This is my eight time in Jacksonville,” said Benise (pronounced Buh-nes-say) via email. “My first was 2007 and I enjoy coming back every year! I look forward to the sweet tea!” And the sweet tea, it turns out, is looking forward to him, as well.
The story of Roni Benise begins in what seems like the most unlikely place: Nebraska, where he was born in January 1965. (Interestingly, he grew up in Ravenna, a town of less than 2,000 which happens to share a name with the Italian city that was a hub for classical music for generations.) Music was a passion for him at an early age, inspired by the legendary rock guitarists he heard on the radio. He got his first guitar at age 11, and he was already playing in local bands by the time he was a teenager. Benise moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s, and quickly built his own rep, busking the streets of the entertainment capital of the world.
His own style is often classified as “nuevo flamenco,” in recognition of the fusion elements he brings to his music, while also incorporating aspects of Cuban salsa, Brazilian samba and Parisian waltz. The Flamenco style of guitar has influenced rock and roll since at least the 1950s, helping to inspire icons from Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck to Dick Dale and Jimmy Page. “Santana helped expose Spanish Guitar to a lot of people,” says. “What I do is fuse Spanish guitar with rock. Some examples are Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” It creates a different take on these classic songs.”
You can easily hear the rock influence in Benise’s music, but you’re more apt to see the influence, particularly in his stage presence. “The whole show is a multimedia production,” he said. “The sets/lights/costumes all help set the mood as each song is a different scene. I like to take people on a roller-coaster of emotions.” Roni Benise shows aren’t just concerts — they’re experiences, and that has allowed him to cultivate a fiercely loyal fanbase with no radio and minimal media support.
Obviously, Spanish guitar in early 2000s Los Angeles was not the easiest thing to sell, so Benise took up the means of production and, with it, control of his own destiny. He formed his own band and began renting venues independently and booking the shows himself, which is something every working musician should think about doing. Within seven years, he went from playing for tips from tourists to selling out 2,000-seat theaters, which he’s been doing for 20 years now.
In addition to what seems like a never-ending tour schedule, with shows already booked through July 2024, Benise has also released 14 albums in 23 years, in addition to two compilations, a live album and six concert films, the second of which, Nights of Fire!, even won an Emmy Award in 2006. That is a remarkably productive pace, by any standard, but that is literally only the half of it. His autobiography, “The Notes Less Traveled: My Journey of Music, Love, and Life,” was published in 2016, followed not long after by a children’s book, “Wish Upon a ROCK Star,” available via his website. He even runs his own ocean cruise, every Memorial Day Weekend.
The man called “The Prince of Spanish Guitar” has embraced all aspects of the music business, including the actual business of music, and all that hard work in the early years has certainly paid off. And soon, there will be sweet tea, as well.