Spotlight: On Duster Bennett – ‘Trying to Paint it in the Sky’
Multi-instrumentalist, composer, singer Duster Bennett was born September 23, 1946.
Bennett is fondly remembered by all who knew him and retains a passionate fan base, but he deserves to be better known. Despite releasing three LPs and five singles during his tenure with the Blue Horizon label (1968 – 1970) a “commercial breakthrough” forever eluded him.
In the liner notes to “Duster Bennett The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions” Top Topham (a friend and frequent bandmate from their days attending various art schools in the early-sixties) writes that Bennett would have had to “…retain his own personal stamp of uniqueness” when he turned professional; thus, his decision to perform as a “one-man band”.
Usually considered a novelty act, or the exclusive domain of buskers and street entertainers, only a few found recording opportunities, with Joe Hill Louis and Doctor Ross being the best known. But true to his idiosyncratic ways, Bennett charted his own path. His choice of songs to cover ranged from ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ (complete with kazoo) to the Chicago blues of Little Walter and Magic Sam; from raucous instrumentals to spirituals by Blind Willie Johnson and ‘Rock of Ages Cleft For Me’.
But it is his original songs that best illustrate his talents as a musician and his qualities as a person and performer.
There is a deep vein of melancholy that runs through his compositions, a spiritual ache that pervades numbers such ‘Times Like These’ ‘Jumping at Shadows’ and ‘Trying to Paint it in the Sky’. He offset these with lighter numbers highlighting word play and energetic harmonica playing.
For those with an interest in British Blues, he is remembered chiefly as the composer of ‘Jumping at Shadows’, a number popularized by Peter Green’s many live performances of the song.
Green and Bennett were friends, and it was Green who introduced Bennett to Mike Vernon’s attention; but since Bennett’s passing, Green’s shadow has tended to obscure Bennett himself.
On-line, too many uploads are said to have Peter Green playing on them when that simply is not true. Now whether this is done as “click-bait” or is just an honest mistake, misinterpreting a CD or LP’s claim that Green is “featured” to mean that he plays on all the songs, I have no way of knowing.
The attached is a good example: I can’t find any upload that does not list Green as playing on the song and that is unfortunate, as people should know that this is Bennett playing all of the instruments, playing as a one-man band, with only the piano being overdubbed.
Duster Bennett: vocal, harmonica, guitar, bass drum & hi-hat /
Ham Richmond (Duster Bennett): piano
Recorded July 08, 1968 – September 09, 1968
Released on “Smiling Like I’m Happy” (Blue Horizon 1968)
Trying to Paint it in the Sky (Duster Bennett) (3:37)
The number opens with a slightly ominous guitar figure, which takes on added weight with bass notes from the piano resonating beneath it. At the end of the intro, he takes to strumming the guitar, keeping the beat and allowing the piano to stitch the decoration in and around the rhythm. After each couplet he blows his harp, the sound of someone trying not to cry.
As a description of the “madness” that can overcome one when falling in love, (subject of countless songs in every style) few mix descriptions of the neuroses it can cause and the poetic metaphors it inspires, the way that Bennett does here.
Beginning with the startling confession that he might be found talking to himself while alone in a room, or trying on a new persona downtown he explains that it is only because he is doing everything that he can to prove his love to the object of his affection.
In the second verse, he describes the almost physical pain his longing causes him; being near her making him feel as if he is being cut by a knife, jumping at the sound of her voice, laughing at all of her jokes; hardly words to endear someone to you.
The middle section finds the music seemingly stuck, repeating the same pattern, bar after bar as he describes his attempt to write down his feelings and when unable to accomplish this simple task, he resolves to tell her directly only to find himself choking on the words when he is standing before her.
The musical logjam finally breaks and his frustration pours forth, underlined by a single, insistent note sounded on the piano. This is “love” balanced on the knife’s edge of obsession; his last plaintive words asking her not to tell him that he is “…playing a losing game” having the potential to be heard as a warning.
The number ends with a reprise of the opening guitar intro, only this time the piano notes ring; they play a repetitive pattern at first, as if to swaddle and comfort, as the guitar sputters and gasps; gradually the two come into alignment, and a sense of peace begins to settle over the number as it begins to fade.
After leaving Blue Horizon, Bennett began to explore other musical styles, working with a variety of producers, moving well beyond his one-man band or small combo arrangements, leaning towards a soul oriented sound. These recordings were gathered on “Fingertips” (Toadstool 1975 – Australia). The LP was reissued by Castle Communications in the U.K. in 2003 with six bonus tracks.
- 'Jumping At Shadows'
- 'Rock of Ages Cleft for Me'
- 'San Francisco Bay Blues'
- 'Times Like These'
- 'Trying to Paint it in the Sky'
- "Duster Bennett The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions"
- "Fingertips" (Toadstool 1975)
- Blind Willie Johnson
- Blue Horizon
- Doctor Ross
- Duster Bennett
- Joe Hill Louis
- Little Walter
- Magic Sam
- Mike Vernon
- Peter Green
- Top Topham