Ben Kweller Plays First Show Following His Son’s Death
Noise Company SXSW showcase became a moving Zev memorial
By Abby Johnston,
12:04PM, Sat. Mar. 18, 2023
Ben Kweller was four songs into his set Friday before pausing to address what loomed heavy over the night. "I was really on the fence about doing this ... Dorian loved all of you," he said. Before launching into "Make It Up," he recalled that the "sick modulation" on the song made it one of his son's favorites.
Dorian Kweller, who as an artist went by his middle name, Zev, was set to open the Mohawk outdoor showcase that night. In a just world, he would have. On February 27, Dorian, just 16 years old, was killed in a car accident. On March 3, his parents – Ben and Liz – laid him to rest on the family ranch. And on March 17, the night that should have been Zev's live debut, his dad instead had to memorialize him.
The showcase for the Noise Company – Kweller's independent music co-op – became a celebration of life. Posters of Dorian's face greeted attendees. A tribute video kicked off the show in the time slot that he, himself, should have. An unusual number of X'd hands – friends from Dripping Springs High School, where he attended – bobbed through the air. Early in the night, frequent Kweller collaborator Modern Love Child performed "Nobody's Perfect," a song he and Dorian wrote together.
And then there was Kweller, playing his first show since the death of his oldest son.
Kweller had other dates on his calendar. A South by Southwest free show at C-Boy's this week was dropped. A Waterloo signing and performance marking the vinyl reissue of 2002's Sha Sha – the album that birthed the modulation Dorian loved so much and put his dad on the map – turned into a signing only. But as Kweller wrote on Instagram days ahead of the event, this showcase was "deeply personal" to him. He was "committed to try and perform for you all, and him."
And he did. Like so many times before, Kweller launched into a mix of songs from his now two-decade career, letting guitar licks bloom and weave new depth into his pop sensibilities. His voice sounded clear as ever, with added grit behind the more raucous parts. He bounced around stage and bantered with the crowd. For anyone who found themselves there without context, it might have seemed like a typical Ben Kweller show.
The moments of overt tribute and rawness were present, still. Austin piano virtuoso Robert Ellis, who played keys during the set, embraced Kweller after "Make It Up." The band – which also notably included Superbad actor Chris Mintz-Plasse on bass – temporarily transformed into Zev to perform his song "How I Am," a meditation on navigating the disappointments of teenage social circles. "This goes out to all of Dorian's friends here tonight," Kweller said.
It was stunning to think about what it takes for a grieving father to mount a stage he should have shared with his son, without him. Still, I have been resisting writing about strength, which, sure, seems like a good word for it. In fact, I posted a video of Kweller on social media playing "Falling," calling the whole set "an incredible act of strength." I won't use it anymore.
We often put the grieving into rigid boxes: You're either steadfast and soldiering on, or completely incapacitated. You're either choosing to share publicly, or private to the point of reclusion. But grief is fluid. How it manifests changes every day, every hour. Praise for how any of it is handled, "strength" included, can give the idea that there is a correct way of facing the unfathomable.
So I'll say this: I'm grateful that, on this day, Kweller woke up and decided that he wanted to honor Dorian at this showcase, and that we got to be there to witness it. I am grateful his son's legacy, musical and otherwise, can be carried on through his family. And I am hopeful that Kweller can feel that connection as he performs.
He seemed to feel it on Friday. As he left the stage, he pointed skyward.
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Ben Kweller, Zev, Dorian Kweller, Noise Company, SXSW Music 2023