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They don’t use the term vanity label for self-released albums like the vanity presses of book publishing, and with Ben Bernstein’s first solo release, Petting Zoo, he gives us more than mere vanity. Petting Zoo is independent of spirit and free of self-indulgence. Bernstein’s album is part of a growing movement of pop music born of an acoustic musician’s experience in traditional genres. Bernstein, as bass player for San Francisco’s Ho’Down Quartet, helped produce a studio bluegrass album and a live Ho’down disc in 2005. In late 2005, Bernstein signed on with SF jam band, New Monsoon, and started touring nationally. During the few breaks from the road, Bernstein spent time in the Bay Area working on Petting Zoo with David Tweedie at Chocolate O’Brien studios.

Petting Zoo opens with the textbook choice of a light and catchy acoustic pop song. “Flipside” sets the wistful tone for the album. Tone and songwriting are strengths of Petting Zoo and Bernstein really gets the groovy tone going on the opening cut. Electric guitar and organ round out the acoustic instrumentation to excellent effect. Bernstein’s Dead inflected vocals give the tune a nostalgic feel.

The second cut, “What am I doing here?” takes another step toward psychedelia but still keeps a tight song form. The playing, mostly Bernstein with Tweedie on drums is great on the album and while the song writing is solid the lyrics have a limited range: from ennui to angst. The tone of the instrumentation is a lighter version of Dylan’s 1966 Albert Hall electric set. Sadly, Bernstein never cuts loose and rocks hard. Perhaps the incessant touring with mostly up-tempo New Monsoon pushed Bernstein toward the tempos he chose. Fortunately, the tight song forms, even on the instrumental cuts, keep the album from plodding.

The album has a nice midsection with two tasty instrumental tracks that really highlight Ben’s tonal sensibilities. The melodies are ethereal but not wandering, and the rhythmic texture keeps the listeners attention without any harshness. "Puesta del Sol", in particular, has a beauty that is world class and nicely sets up the exit of the album. Bernstein’s duet with Toni Mattioli, "If" is a conversation with two mellowed out optimists. Ben and Toni share a moment in the song that makes it clear these are two musicians with some warm history together.

Bernstein has not been a main vocalist in any of his gigging projects, but he does a great job of carrying the album’s vocals for the eight songs. His vocal affect is a good match for his almost apathetic lyrics, “Maybe I’m holding back… perhaps I’m just a fool.” In fact, when Toni Mattioli sings the duet, it seems that 2 years gigging with Mattioli’s Stolen Bibles was a formative time for Bernstein’s voice.

Petting Zoo is a singer songwriter album, but with Bernstein’s playing, Tweedie’s production and Toni Mattioli joining in, the album leaps over stilted singer/songwriter irritations. Bernstein stretched himself and made a great album. - Jambase


Discography

Petting Zoo - July 2006

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Bio

Bay Area musician and singer-songwriter Ben Bernstein’s life-long musical journey continues on its dynamic course with his latest effort and his first solo CD “Petting Zoo. ” The critically lauded release reflects Ben’s knowledge of multiple genres and production skills, while putting a new voice on the long-time sideman’s creative expression.

Well versed in a wide spectrum of musical genres, Bernstein amassed a wealth of experience playing bass for jazz, pop, Latin, hip-hop, Americana, funk, and bluegrass projects. While in New York he was a founding member of the city’s premier bluegrass band, Citigrass. Later he would form The Smoggy Borough Boyz, performing progressive Newgrass with Citigrass band mates Jordan Shapiro and James Kerr.

In 2002, again feeling the winds of change and destiny, Ben headed west for the San Francisco Bay. He began playing blues and funk gigs at the Blue Lamp in San Francisco with Edna Love and the Lovetoys and the Smokedaddies. He quickly became an in demand bassist and continued exploring the many genres in which he had become adept. In the summer of 2002 Ben co-founded the Ho’ Down Quartet and furthered his bluegrass journey. The band, managed and booked by Bernstein, quickly became a local success, performing weekly at the Blackthorn Tavern, and at the 2003 San Francisco Old Time and Bluegrass Festival. The group took a two-week tour to Colorado with a stop at the 30th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival where they competed for a chance to play on the main stage. While in the Quartet, Ben also became a performing member of Tony Mattioli’s Stolen Bibles, performing a blend of “Americana Soul” around the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2004, Ben signed on with New Monsoon, touring extensively throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. As part of New Monsoon, Bernstein played for large crowds at major U.S. venues and festivals including the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco, CA, Red Rocks Amphitheater, The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Bonnaroo in Tennessee. While with New Monsoon he had the opportunity to participate in the 2005 Big Summer Classic Tour performing alongside and jamming with bands such as the String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Keller Williams, and Umphrey’s McGee. After almost three years of touring, Ben left the band in October 2006 to focus on solo work, music production, and freelance performance and session work.

Ben drew on his vast experience to create his first solo effort, “Petting Zoo” (2006) co-produced by his Stolen Bibles band mate Dave Tweedie. Featuring 11 of Ben’s originals, the release highlights his diverse talents as a songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. Recorded partially in his apartment and at Chocolate O’Brien studios in Oakland, CA, “Petting Zoo” includes light and catchy acoustic pop songs, psychedelia and Dylan-esque stylings.

He continues to perform both solo as a songwriter, and as a freelance bassist. In recent years Ben has been seen jamming with Drew Emmitt's band. He is also an in demand session musician, engineer, and producer.