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At the Bootleg Theater, Benji Hughes lets it all hang out

At the Bootleg Theater, Benji Hughes lets it all hang out
Benji Hughes performs Thursday night at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A good half-hour before the end of his concert Thursday night at the Bootleg Theater, Benji Hughes was already looking ahead to his next gig.

The North Carolina-based singer and his band would be in Los Angeles for a few days, he told the crowd, so anyone interested in having him play again -- "birthday, house party, whatever" -- should reach out.

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"It's not that difficult" to book him, he added, before explaining why he was using one job to solicit another: "All this juice out here is really expensive."

Hughes, 40, is accustomed to such transactional thinking. Though he's something of a cult hero thanks to his brilliant and demented pop records -- including a new one, "Songs in the Key of Animals," released last week -- it's probably his work as a songwriter-for-hire that pays most of his grocery bills.

Hughes has created jingles for breakfast cereal and booze, and he's composed for movies and television. Remember John C. Reilly's music-biopic parody "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"? Hughes co-wrote "Let's Duet," a pitch-perfect spoof of the kind of tune Johnny Cash and June Carter used to sing.

What's fascinating about Hughes' own music is the way that commercial instinct comes up against his more outré tendencies. In 2008, following an earlier stint in the also-ran grunge band Muscadine, Hughes released his debut solo album, "A Love Extreme," which lived up to its title with no fewer than 25 songs.

Among them are a handful of gorgeous ballads like "All You've Got to Do Is Fall in Love," an old-fashioned tear-in-your-beer lament that Hughes sings with such wounded tenderness that it's no wonder Jeff Bridges recruited him a few years ago to appear on the album Bridges made with T Bone Burnett.

But then there's "Tight Tee Shirt," a creepy, disco-kissed ode to said garment "on a real sweet girl," and the bleary "I Went With Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips," which winds up with the singer's pal Mark taking "way too much MDMA."

A similar tension animates "Songs in the Key of Animals," which combines catchy but off-kilter synth-pop songs like "Shark Attack!!!!!!!!!!" ("If you show up at Red Lobster looking like a lobster / They won't charge you for anything at all") with more of Hughes' last-call piano-bar material, including "Take You Home," a real beauty.

If Hughes were to focus on one or the other, you could envision the funny stuff or the sad stuff propelling him to increased visibility. But the whole point of Benji Hughes is taking both of those sides together, just as it was with his clear predecessors -- sensitive oddballs like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Warren Zevon (the last of whom Hughes nodded to directly at the Bootleg by singing a bit of "Desperados Under the Eaves").

At a moment when pop stars are encouraged to streamline their brands, Hughes lets it all hang out.

On Thursday, that philosophy extended to his stage garb -- an open Hawaiian shirt through which his belly proudly bulged -- and his freewheeling banter, which in addition to the high price of juice in L.A. touched on the Kevin Bacon drama "The Following" and whether the driver died in the car crash that killed Princess Diana.

After every couple of songs, Hughes would dash backstage and come back several minutes later with a small cup filled with who knows what. And by my count he played exactly one tune from the new album he was ostensibly there to promote. (That was "Freaky Feedback Blues," which inspired an audience singalong despite the fact that the song had been out for only a few days.)

In this way, Hughes seemed to be tempting you to think of the show as no big deal, a piece of work to get through before moving on to something else.

But just as you let your defenses down, he eased into a quietly devastating version of his song "Girl in the Tower," in which he dreams of storming a castle to rescue his lover. It was tragic. It was comic. It ended with an endearing stumble when Hughes' drummer missed his guitarist's cue for a dramatic finish.

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Who wouldn't want to hire this guy?

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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