.Laura Benitez and The Heartache: Country music from deep in the heart of Oakland

The songs on California Centuries, the latest album from Laura Benitez and The Heartache, developed slowly over the last few years. “I love California,” Benitez said from her Oakland home. “It’s the best place in the world. The last three years have seemed like centuries, but the title’s also a nod to the timelessness that I aim for in my songs.

“It’s a tribute to my partner, Bryan Kilgore, as well. He’s a non-competitive, long-distance cyclist—a randonneur. When you ride 100 miles, they call it a century.” 

The album has a larger-than-life sound, with bedrock rhythms complimented by washes of steel guitar and reverberating electric guitars that take up an immense sonic space. It opens with “Bad Things,” a rocker with a solid groove and sinister steel guitar fills, supporting Benitez as she describes the anxiety caused by the COVID lockdown and California’s wildfires.

“All Songs” is a lullaby, with a realistic lyric that balances the comfort of parental love with the realities of life’s limitations. Benitez croons softly, while the steel guitar sighs in the background. “On Sept. 9, 2020, the day the sky turned orange, it felt a little apocalyptic. At the same time, I’m with my nine-month-old child, who is full of wonder and delight. The song’s reconciling those two realities. I was lullabying myself, as well as my child.” 

“God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise” is a bluegrass rave up, with Dobro mimicking the sound of a banjo, while “Gaslight (We Shouldn’t Talk About It)” addresses America’s addiction to guns and violence, with a loping country beat. Benitez assumes a male persona in the last verse, to offer excuses for inexcusable behavior. “That voice is based on comments on a Facebook thread,” Benitez explained. “I know Trump speaks that way, but I was thinking about men I’ve directly encountered.”

“I moved to LA and got a few jobs, but you can’t act until you have a job, and that depends on other people. It’s not like music, where you can sing in your backyard, or on the street, or anywhere you want to. I moved back to Oakland and started singing with a country cover band. I loved the perspective of artists like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Gillian Welch and fell in love with the music. About 10 years ago, I thought I’d try songwriting. After I wrote three or four, I liked what I was doing and I kept going.” 

She quit the cover band and started thinking about performing her own tunes. “I recorded my first album, For Duty or for Love, almost as a demo. I managed myself and I needed a way to book shows. It seemed like having a recording would be a way to do that. The first version of The Heartache was Michele Kappel drums, Bob Spector on guitar, Ted O’Connell on bass and steel player Ian Sutton. They also recorded and toured with me for my second album, Heartless Woman, in 2014.”

Since then, the band has been through more personnel shifts. The core band for California Centuries included Spector on guitar, Russell Kiel on bass, drummer Steve Pearson, Sutton on steel guitar and Dobro, and a few special guests. Now, with things opening up again, Benitiz is ready to start playing live. 

“After all the stops and starts of the last few years, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to gig regularly. Some shows got canceled, and everyone in the band had different feelings about what gigs were safe to play. Right now, it feels a bit like that scene from Forrest Gump, when after the hurricane, his shrimp boat is the only one left. That’s how it feels to still have a band after a pandemic.” 

You can see Laura Benitez and The Heartache on Saturday, Oct. 22 at The Lost Church, 988 Columbus Ave., San Francisco (thelostchurch.org); Saturday, Dec. 3 at The Mystic Theater, Avery (mystictheater.com); Saturday, Dec. 11 at The Torch Club, 904 15th St., Sacramento (thetorchclub.net); and Wednesday, Jan. 11 at The Hotel Utah Saloon, 500 4th St., San Francisco (hotelutah.com). 

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