Sometimes risk-taking means a 300-pound guy repeatedly body-slamming other dudes of about that size to prevent a football from moving down a field. Sometimes it means splintering a door with an ax and racing into a burning building filled with life-threatening smoke to save a life. Other times, courage is picking up a guitar, writing heartfelt, socially conscious lyrics, and baring your soul onstage in a public performance.
Francis Blay, lead singer of the Bay Area alternative rock band Benvenue, has done it all. “As a former linebacker at Cal and a firefighter for Alameda Fire Department for the last eleven years, music and the band is absolutely a part of my every day recovery and self-healing,” he said.
Following a hiatus since its well-received 2010 EP Jean Elizabeth, a successful show at Los Angeles’ Viper Room, and a 2012 appearance at South by Southwest, Benvenue is revved up for a homecoming show Aug. 16 at Cornerstone Berkeley. Blay is joined by guitarist Sid Slater, bassist Erik Robertson, and drummer David Mun. Returning to the city in which the group began in 2004, the gig marks the release of a new, five-track EP, Take the Time to Breathe.
The title song bears Benvenue’s signature marks — fiery riffs, soaring melodic tones, propulsive rhythms, and memorable and vibrant lyrics. It all adds up to an experience like driving a little too fast in a convertible with the wind blowing your hair into knots. But there is also newfound maturity evident in lyrical messages supported by meticulous engineering — about caring for the environment and humanity. The band’s youthful energy has not diminished as much as shifted gears. They still are, essentially, “having a blast,” according to Robertson.
“The first time around we were all fresh out of college and just beginning to find our sound and styles as individual musicians,” Robertson recalled. “This time, everyone in the band had more experience in the studio, as well as life in general. This wasn’t easy by any stretch, as we’re an unsigned band with “day jobs” and families. If I had to pin down which area we grew most, I’d say it’s knowing what we can accomplish when we navigate through life’s ups and downs, get together, keep things fun. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.”
Blay talked a lot about worth and values in a separate interview. Raised in Southern California, his mother exposed him to the power of gospel music. Meanwhile, his Cuban father — whom he called “my hero; the most concrete person in my life” — favored salsa music and artists like Ray Reese and Celia Cruz. “How can that not resonate?” Blay asked. “All these modes of music have shaped me and the band.”
Even so, Benvenue resists classification. Blay’s recent playlist consists of classic rock, jazz crooner Tom Misch, Christian hip-hop musician Andy Mineo, and Bill Withers. “Funny, you can live near music like Withers’, created so long ago, then realize, it’s timeless. We stay true to ourselves and people in the Bay Area respect that.”
Arriving in 2002 at Cal on a full-ride football scholarship and earning a degree in Social Welfare, Blay says Berkeley was one of the best things that ever happened to him. “The first day, the different smells, the people playing djembe drums on Telegraph Avenue — it made me feel like I could do anything,” he recalled. “To play football, go to school, do well academically and have a social life, if you can manage that, you can manage anything.”
Life has delivered challenges for the songwriter to manage, as is evident in the backstory for the song, “Blind,” which is about Blay’s aunt. Toward the end of her life, she lost her sight. “We weren’t on the best of terms when I was 10 years old and I never made up with her,” he said. “I wish I had cherished her, taken the time to make those amends. … ‘We once could see and now are left so blind,’ a line in the chorus, speaks to that.”
Other serious topics addressed in Blay’s songwriting involve longterm commitments, human frailty, race, mortality. In addition to Blay, Robertson and Mun are firefighters, Salter recently married, and Blay and his wife, Randi, became parents. “Avi will be two in August,” he said. “Seeing him experience things for the first time is enlightening. What I expose him to will shape him, just like it did for me.”
Blay’s experiences as an African-American man — the anguish felt of not being socially accepted — still resonate, but dissolve on a football field, while firefighting, or with the band. “The beautiful thing I’ve had of experiencing different races and cultures is that there’s no race when you’re fighting a fire. Our crew doesn’t care when we’re trying to help people survive. Same with football, from being strangers to the end of the season when you’re like a family, it doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s about doing a job, treating each other right. I wish people paid more attention to each other. We’re all alike. At the core, we all want to be treated the same. And treated right.”
And so it is with gratitude and “we are strong” lyrics that Benvenue comes home. “We all have differences but we just have to be nice to each other,” Blay said. “Life is precious and no future moment is promised to us.”
Aug. 16, 8 p.m., $12-14, Benvenue at Cornerstone, 2367 Shattuck Ave. (enter on Durant), Berkeley, 510-214-8600, CornerstoneBerkeley.com