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Sarah Benck and The Robbers:
The Anti-Diva

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: June 20, 2007

Sarah Benck and The Robbers
w/Scott Severin and The Milton Burlesque
Friday, June 22
9 p.m.
The Waiting Room
6212 Maple St.

In an era when hotties of questionable talent -- Christina, Britney, Mandy -- are deified as modern-day divas with the millions and the bling to prove it, Sarah Benck is the real deal.

She's young, attractive, with a voice that's pure American Idol finalist. Add to that the fact that she can actually write music and play an instrument and you'd think every suit on Sunset Blvd. would be tripping over his coke spoon for a chance to turn her into the next Christina Aguilera. All it would take is for Benck to give herself up to them, body and soul, something that she's not willing to do.

"It's against my nature to bend over and take it from anyone," she said, surrounded by her band The Robbers, sipping java at Caffeine Dreams. "I understand compromises have to be made to a certain extent, and I'm willing to do that, but I don't want dub beats added to my music."

Laughs all around. Though this incarnation of The Robbers has only been together for about a year, there's already a family vibe to the group, with Benck playing the role of the sweet, red-headed little sister. Bassist James Carrig and guitarist Jason Ferguson go back five years with Benck to their days in The Rex Granite Band. Drummer Scott "Zip" Zimmerman is the new guy, but has played alongside them in other projects for just as long.

So it's no surprise that her guys support Benck's wish to avoid the Hollywood star-making machine, content merely to play live and release new material like their upcoming self-released full-length, Neighbor's Garden, the follow-up to 2005's Suicide Doublewide.



On the new album, Benck continues to lean on a voice that's equal parts Bonnie, Ricki, Joni and Joss (to put a modern spin on it), sung over tunes that are equal parts Van Morrison, Black Crowes and Spin Doctors. At the age 23, Benck's voice is still growing, though it's already bigger than her 5-foot nothing frame. The fact that the music lies somewhere between Americana, R&B, chick pop and good-time rock is surprising and respectable, especially since she's well aware that she's doing it from the heart of indie. Benck never caters to the mode o' day of the Creek/indie/slacker nation -- where Omaha just happens to be the capitol -- and that's just the way she wants it -- preferring pop to pap.

And pop is exactly what you get, with a title track that kicks off like every Jackson 5 tune you remember from the '70s, that is until Benck cuts in with her brassy Raitt-ish croon, singing lyrics not about a secret love child, but a Boston Terrier named Coco. The rabbit reference was a dead give-away.

That jazzy R&B bounce her fans have come to expect permeates most of the album. "Dump the Truck" and "Dig Your Grave" ride a cushion of bar-room beats, while "What You Got" slides in some gospel organ that compliment's Benck's best Aretha.

More revealing, however, are the slower numbers whose bare arrangements leave her voice stripped to the bone. "Good Man," rolls like down-beat early Ricki Lee Jones, while "Once A Week" channels Ladies of the Canyon-era Joni -- Benck with an acoustic guitar trips up and down her vocal ladder in awkward increments unafraid to reveal the limits of her reach. At just over two and a half minutes, the track is the disc's finest, most honest moment. Disc closer "I Can Still," with its saucy line "I can still smell you on my skin" is pure obsession. Benck won't say who the Casanova is that she'd "walk for miles in my bare feet" just to see.

"I don't want that person to think that I was that infatuated with him at the time, because he kind of blew me off," Benck said. "I wouldn't want him to know the song was about him." She insists all the men in her songs remain nameless to protect their innocence (whether they're innocent or not).

Neighbor's Garden is a pop-soul gem that has "commercial accessibility" written all over it. Too bad it likely won't get heard outside of our little borough. Despite conquering the Omaha scene -- Suicide sold nearly 3,000 copies from the stage or through Homer's -- Benck and Co. have no plans to stray from the same formula that has netted them only obscurity beyond I-80.

"We don't have a business model," said guitarist Ferguson. "We're the anti-trying-to-make-it band. Everyone has this perception that Sarah's going to be the next big thing, but we're not on the phone calling labels begging to get signed."

Instead, Ferguson said the band will continue to do what it's done the past two years -- play anywhere and everywhere it can… in the tri-state area. "She's established herself in her own town with two strong CDs," he said. "The sky's the limit. Getting the CD in the right hands, that's the next stage, I suppose."












"We're the anti-trying-to-make-it band. Everyone has this perception that Sarah's going to be the next big thing, but we're not on the phone calling labels begging to get signed."












"Sometimes it's frustrating to see people succeed who I think have such little talent, and who are only popular because of their image or their willingness to compromise and completely surrender."

Unlike indie bands that rabidly send demos to perspective labels in a doomed fishing expedition, the thought of blindly mailing CDs to record companies never crossed Benck's mind, until now. "I never felt you could send something out to a label unsolicited. It's a waste of time, especially with the amount of competition these days," she said.

Instead, Benck hopes to work her local connections, like Homer's president Mike Fratt, who she believes has a natural link to labels. "He's been mentioning us for years," she said. "I think that's what it takes -- people in the community with connections who really believe in you."

Which brings us back to, of all places, American Idol. If there's one local talent that could do well in that competition it's Benck, who would have no problem making scowling Simon Cowell a believer.

"It's the principal of the thing," Benck said, slightly agitated by the idea. "They're singing cover songs. Even if you were a songwriter and played an instrument, it wouldn't matter. They're selling an image, a puppet.

"They've trained the general population into believing what pop music is supposed to be -- people who don't play instruments, don't write their own music, and have no knowledge or skill to do either.

"Sometimes it's frustrating to see people succeed who I think have such little talent, and who are only popular because of their image or their willingness to compromise and completely surrender," Benck added. "Everyone knows we're a real band. We've all played music most of our lives."

In the end, neither Benck nor The Robbers seem in a hurry to take the next step. All four have day-jobs at Dietz Music, and all four can tour if Benck (or someone) ever books a tour -- a task that she said goes against her introverted personality.

"Every band I've been in has dreamed of getting on a label and touring," said drummer Zimmerman. "We'll do it when we can, and go on the road when we can. It's not the focus. The focus is on just playing music."

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Published in The Omaha Reader June 20, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.