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By Michael E. Miller
In today's tough economic times, being a one-man band could be considered as much a function of financial necessity as a measure of instrumental dexterity. After all, given the ever-increasing costs of hotels, meals, and transportation, portability is a plus. Take Ben Prestage, for example. Labeled as "one of the three best unsigned performers in the world" at the 2006 International Blues Challenge, this musical multitasker seems equally at home playing for the masses at sprawling outdoor music fests as entertaining intimate crowds at a local tavern or performing for free for passersby on the sidewalks of Key West.
Still, scrap any notion of a cartoonish guy sporting a bass drum on his back and strumming a ukulele while clanging cymbals strapped between his knees. There's nothing quaint or comical about Prestage. Wailing the blues with a frenzy and ferocity that could rival a full-blown ensemble, he delivers a passionate blend of Mississippi Delta blues and gritty swamp stomps reflective of his rural upbringing in Central Florida. Even so, his instrumental setup does attract notice, specifically the primitive-looking contraption fashioned from a wooden cigar box featuring a pair of dowels that function as frets, with a single bass string attached to one and guitar strings strung on the other. Pickups and output jacks in the cigar box transmit the sound into different amplifiers, allowing Prestage to play both guitar and bass separately yet simultaneously, while using his feet to manipulate the beat via foot pedals attached to his modified drum kit.
At the same time, Prestage's performances belie any hint of gimmickry. Indeed it's his reverence for his roots — spawned from his grandfather's stint as a Mississippi sharecropper and his dad's love of the blues — that inspired him to pursue his muse, first by picking up a trumpet at the age of 10 and then switching to guitar three years later. He began singing as a teenager, but it was only after discovering the one-man-band approach of Memphis bluesmen such as Richard Johnston and John Lowe — inventor of the LoweBow Hill Harp cigar-box guitar that Prestage plays — that he immersed himself in techniques that find him emulating his icons.
That devotion to the blues has Prestage maintaining his mantra. "The blues is alive and well," he insists. "It may be one of the most neglected forms of music by major record companies and music publications, yet it still holds one of the most loyal fan bases due mostly to live performance."
In this clip, Ben Prestage performs his song "The Giver" live at the 2007 Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza in Huntsville, Alabana. Film via YouTube by Ted Crocker.