A rebel by birth and musician by choice, Michigan native Donald Benjamin first received notoriety on the regional music scene battling his way as a semi-finalist in the 2002 Mid-Michigan Idol competition. Described as the musical spawn of Buddy Guy, Eddie Vedder and Bon Jovi, Benjamin’s career expanded and he received local airplay, regional recognition, and several honors for his songwriting prowess.
Over a decade since the release of his highly acclaimed Destination Unknown E.P., Benjamin was formerly involved with last year’s RMA winners Lemon Frog and recently formed a new power-house rock’n’blues trio entitled Less Than Ordinary with drummer/guitarist Ron Waldorf and bassist Paul Tinglan. He is busily preparing the upcoming release of a follow-up album entitled Reborn, which showcases his songwriting ability and the divergent influences from which it evolved; and with Less Than Ordinary the collective goal is to create a group that breaks the mold to display a scorching mesh of different musical styles with matching intensity.
Despite the remarkable wave of success that Benjamin and his band-mates secured at this year’s 2014 Review Music Awards, their moment to bask in the spotlight and enjoy the afterglow of their success was unfortunately cut short and tarnished by allegations from former band members and other nominated musicians that Less Than Ordinary had somehow managed to ‘game the system’ by utilizing illicit means to secure their wins, despite stringent controls The Review puts into place to assure a fair and equitable contest; and despite the fact these allegations surfaced on Facebook not during the Nominating Stage of the voting process, but after the final voting stage was completed and the winners announced.
Ironically, this is not the first time a relatively unknown act has swept different segments of the Awards Ceremony. Similar ‘sweeps’ happened in 1990-91 with Roy Simon & Miner’s Junction, in 2009-2012 with Steve Armstrong & the 25 Cent Beer Band, and in 1994 with Mansion. And in each of these instances the groups that surfaced to the top went forward to both further their talents and enrich our lives.
On a personal note, this variety of ‘sour grapes’ is not what the RMA Awards Ceremony is all about. The purpose of this ceremony is to honor the talents of all nominees and the irreplaceable contributions they make to enrich and fortify the musical community of the Great Lakes Bay. Each nominee that manages to make the final Top Five round of balloting earns that distinction not by prejudice, arbitration, greed, or ego; but because they inspire members of the general voting public to action.
One thing that detractors cannot take away from either Donald Benjamin or Less Than Ordinary is their achievement. And as the ensuing interview reveals, great things loom ahead for this group over the upcoming year. Fear not, guys – as P.T. Barnum once astutely noted: ‘There is no such thing as bad publicity.’ And when you’re handed lemons, the best thing you can do is make lemonade. (No pun intended)
Review: Tell me about the origins of 'Less than Ordinary' and how you came to form the group and align yourself with your current band members. What do you feel each member contributes to the group and what are some of your musical goals?
Donald Benjamin: I returned to my roots as a solo performer after I left my previous musical group. Along the way, having jammed with a few local musicians, I decided to form something new… something different. I met Paul Tinglan (bass) through an Internet ad. From the beginning we meshed well and began performing as a guitar/bass duo, under the name Less Than Ordinary, which was the name of an acoustic project I had from 2004-2005.
After a couple failed attempts to find the right additional musician, a chance opportunity allowed us to reconnect with Ron Waldorf (drums), whom I knew from high school. Ron and I were both members of the Standish-Sterling Central band, so I was confident his personality and talent would fit in well with the sound we were looking to create.
Review: Where do you usually perform and what are some of your current and immediate future plans and goals for the group?
Benjamin: The short answer is any and everywhere. We’ve played several shows at local venues, such as Bemo’s in Bay City. We’ve also been performing statewide at venues in Alpena, Flint, Lansing and others. In March we opened for Billboard charting artists, REHAB, at the Machine Shop during their farewell tour. Two weeks ago we had a successful run of shows in Ohio, including headlining the historic Avalon and being a featured act at Groamy’s CDs/Gilbert’s Music, one of the last remaining, authentic, record stores in America, on National Record Store Day. This fall we have tentative dates in Manhattan, New York and Nashville, Tennessee. We’re also looking at a potential placement in a major Blues festival in Clarksville, Mississippi.
Paul Tinglan: We try to play as often as we can. So far, in 2014, we’ve been booked nearly every weekend, with random weeknight performances thrown in for good measure.
Ron Waldorf: Over the next few weeks, while Donald is finishing up recording his solo CD release, we will be in the studio as well, recording our first E.P. We have been fortunate to receive the opportunity to get some distribution through worldwide channels so, for the immediate future that is our first priority.
Review: What was your reaction to winning so many awards at this year's ceremony and what do you attribute your popularity to? It seems like you exploded out of nowhere to gain attention among the 7000 people that registered to vote, which is not the first time that has happened; yet claims have been made that that members gamed the voting process by going to the library and using independent IP connections from multiple computers to stuff the ballots. What is your response to these allegations?
Benjamin: As far as the controversy, we look at it like this… Critics are just as the name implies. If the success is not their own they immediately assume there must have been some scandalous reason for it. The notion that we ‘came out of nowhere’ is the first issue. I’ve personally been songwriting in the area for over 13 years. As a solo musician, I was the recipient last year of two personal Review Music Awards and received the title of ‘Best New Artist” with my previous band. It’s not like it was an immaculate conception.
Secondly, the libelous statement that we were seen going from library to library, in an attempt to secure padded votes is ludicrous. We all have full-time jobs, families and other concerns. As a unit we barely have enough free time, around our work and family schedules, to get in a rehearsal every two weeks. The amount of time it would have taken to do so, if these people would stop and think rationally, would have been an immense undertaking. Really, if you look at the low number of actual libraries available in the areas in which we live, let alone the number of computers, this accusation has no grasp on reality.
Ron Waldorf: It wasn’t as if we ‘walked in and swiped all the awards,’ as some claim. As a band we won four. Donald won another four because of his solo endeavors. He also took one for his website. They weren’t all in one chunk or category. They were spread out, for different things. No different than if another band had won for their group performances and then, again, for their acoustic performances as a duo, etc.”
Donald Benjamin: The biggest factor in why we were so very fortunate at the 2014 Review Music Awards comes down to ‘fans vs. friends.’ We’ve heard a notable, local band say that there’s no way a band with only 200+ Facebook ‘likes’ can authentically win a Review Music Award. That in itself is where the discussion lies. While other bands have a thousand or more “fans,” we have a few hundred “friends.” It’s easy to have a large number of people click on a button, but truly how many of those people do bands actually know anything about, on a personal level? On the other side, we may have a smaller number of “friends,” but we see them, sometimes daily. We know their lives and their families and they know ours. Because of this they go to bat for us, calling radio stations and venues, going to nearly every local gig, voting, en masse, for us in fan polls and music awards. It’s simple math. They’re die-hard supporters who know us, respect us and not only follow us, but help shape the direction of our careers. It’s not the number of people who SAY they like you that matters. It’s the number of people that go out of their way to HELP you get there. That’s the difference. That’s why we have been so successful.”
Ron Waldorf: That’s why this controversy has so much collateral damage, beyond what they are attempting to do to our reputations. These friends, who voted their collective rear-ends off, are being made out as having no effect or bearing. That’s disgraceful to them, as they are the people who drive the music scene by attending shows, buying merchandise and supporting musicians.
Review: What do you feel it is about your sound and approach that distinguishes your music the most?
Ron Waldorf: The group, as a trio, is solid. With each of us bringing different elements to the fold there is a diversity that creates an interesting mix. Donald is a straight-up bluesman. Paul is a die-hard “metal head.” Myself, I love hard rock, but grew up around bluegrass and country music players. Together, the sound has its moments of each, but an overall blend that, we think, is pretty cool.”
Paul Tinglan: We’re not unlike most bands. We work hard. We practice as much as possible. We are always writing and fine tuning our performance. The biggest thing for us is that we each have a different major focus. Donald delivers on songwriting and managing the group. He also has a deep, soulful sound quality, in his voice. I bring a big energy level and always aim to entertain. I like to take the pressure of the other guys by making the crowd focus on myself a bit more often. Ron’s the kind of guy that will do whatever he needs to, to make us better. Drums, guitar, bass… whatever we need, he can do. With that work ethic and our blend of musical styles, that’s how we click. We’ve heard it said that you “can’t hide it when you’re live, on stage.” They’re right! People don’t want to just hear the music. They want to be entertained. They want to see and feel it. That, in itself, is our combined focus.
Review: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing your endeavors at this stage of the game?
Donald Benjamin: Without question, it’s a combination of the critics and venues that, because of what they hear and perceive about us, are hesitant to give us the opportunity to show what we can do. With the current controversy, and the dark cloud of my previous musical group constantly looming, many people are hesitant to separate us from what they knew about my prior incarnations. They listen to what former associates say and take it as gospel.
I fell into a bad scene and situation and inherited drama through association. I left on my own accord because I wanted more. I wanted better for my family, my music and myself. With Paul and Ron I’ve found that. It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by guys who have the same goals, the same drive and passion. Our goals are firm, focused and not shadowed by ‘haze.’ We know, as a unit, that we’re as tight as any group and willing to do what it takes to succeed. Beyond that we do our best to play great music. The venues that have graciously hosted us, know that, and we have been well received and, so far, repeatedly asked back.
9th February, 2024