“Death always leaves one singer to mourn.” –Katherine Ann Porter
Ben Kweller quietly strums an acoustic guitar backstage as hundreds of fans crowd into Austin’s Historic Scoot Inn on a 102-degree night. It’s the final show of a summer tour that included stops in Denver, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. Many in the audience have followed the musician for more than twenty years, back when Ben, then a talented kid from Greenville, Texas, became one of the most sought-after singer-songwriters in the country. While the audience waits in the heat, napkins transform into makeshift fans and backs become drenched in sweat. This summer tour was intended to be a first for Ben—his sixteen-year-old son, Dorian, on the brink of launching his own musical career, would be the opening act.
“It was about to be just like what I went through with Ben,” Ben’s dad Howie, a physician in Greenville, a small city northeast of Dallas, tells me after the show. “It was history repeating itself.” Performing as Zev (his middle name, which means “wolf” in Hebrew), Dorian released his first single, “How I Am,” in February on his dad’s label, the Noise Company, and was booked to play as part of a showcase at South by Southwest music festival in March. It would be the public’s first chance to see the talented son of the musician that the New Yorker once described as sounding “as if the Beatles had gone to India and instead of the maharishi had encountered Pearl Jam.”
By the time he was Dorian’s age, Ben had already been pursued by fourteen record labels after his alt-rock grunge band, Radish, caught the attention of industry executives hungry for the next Nirvana. By age eighteen, he had spent time in Madonna’s house and hung out in Malibu mansions with Axl Rose and Robbie Robertson. Two decades after his own teenage success, Ben felt reinvigorated by his son’s passion for music. “It reminded me of when I was fifteen and sixteen, and music was all I did,” he says. “There was so much comfort in that.”
The Kweller family was excited to go on the road together for the summer tour. Ben and his wife of twenty years, Liz, would watch their eldest child on stage; their thirteen-year-old son Judah, also a musician, would work the merch table. They’d hang on the tour bus, a sort of indie rock Partridge Family. Along the way, audiences would fall for Dorian’s music, songs that sound like youth feels—rebellious and romantic, ethereal and unruly.
On this July night at Scoot Inn, the talents of father and son will join together, just not in the ways Ben had expected.
“The unimaginable happened,” Ben says, walking onstage at dusk wearing a white Zev T-shirt, his wavy red hair falling past his shoulders. Five months ago, just a few weeks before his planned SXSW debut, Dorian was killed in a car crash near the family’s home in Dripping Springs. Ben’s voice sounds hushed and careful when he talks about his son’s death, as if one word could set off an avalanche of emotion and send him reeling. But this is still a rock show, so he shifts from raw moments of grief to full-on, propulsive playing. In between high energy songs like the upbeat indie rock anthem “Wasted & Ready” and the bluesy country lament “Red Eye,” he calls out to Dorian, saying, “I miss you, baby,” or simply his son’s name. It might seem strange to marry grief and rock and roll, but loss and joy aren’t mutually exclusive, a fact that Ben seems to intuitively understand.
On stage, he acknowledges that some might wonder how he could continue with this tour after such a tragedy. How he could ride on the bus and plan the merch and do the sound check for a tour that started as a collaboration and is now a tribute. How he could find the motivation to give so much of himself to an audience when he’s still learning to navigate this new existence, one transformed by a kind of grief that musician Nick Cave, who has lost two sons, believes can “alter us on an almost atomic level.”
“I promised him,” Ben tells the crowd.
On the night of Monday, February 27, Dorian was driving home from a friend’s house when a truck swerved into his lane, forcing him to steer his Toyota Highlander into the trees. One of the millions of tree limbs damaged in Central Texas during February’s winter freeze broke through a window and struck Dorian’s head, killing him on impact.
Ben and Liz help me get to know Dorian: He was a percussionist in the Dripping Springs High School Tiger Band. An accomplished skateboarder with a mini ramp at home, he was about to be sponsored by Volatile Skateboards and grace the cover of the brand’s catalog. His family called him Rabbi Kweller, because he was “philosophical right out of the womb.” When Dorian was a toddler, Ben and Howie gave him a mini red Ludwig drum set for Hanukkah. Ben says his son instantly had rhythm, and he discovered that Dorian was right-handed from the way he held the sticks. At his funeral, a teen girl walked up to Ben and told him that when she was new at school and didn’t have any friends, she would look for Dorian’s teal-green L.L. Bean backpack in the hallway so she could walk with him. His presence, and his kindness, comforted her. “That’s how he was,” Ben says.
At the start of each of the tribute concerts, Ben sits alone on stage and watches a video dedicated to his son. Zev’s songs play over the images: Dorian leaning on a kitchen island, grinning with pride as he holds up his phone to play a demo for his grandfather. Dorian skateboarding through a parking lot at night with his friends. Dorian warming up with the marching band before a football game, his hair long like his father’s and styled in two French braids. Dorian playing guitar on a deck overlooking a lake at his grandparents’ place in Greenville, with his dad on vocals and brother Judah behind the drums. Ben never once turns away from the screen, and faces each memory of his son with stillness and intention. He tells me later that it was “heavy on the soul,” but necessary, to watch that video night after night. “It felt like I was keeping him alive in some way,” he says. “One of the saddest things about this is the distance between today and the last time I saw him.”
At the Echo Lounge & Music Hall in Dallas, the night before the Austin show, the video ends, and the band walks on stage in silence: guitarist and keyboardist Robert Ellis, bassist Chris Mintz-Plasse (the actor and comedian), and drummer Ryan Dean. The group launches into an emotional, electrifying performance that ends with Zev’s song “How I Am.” In the middle of watching Ben sing this breakup song with dreamy, upbeat, atmospheric guitar, tears start to stream down my face. I notice a woman crying next to me, so I give her a nod, and we hug. As quickly as we embrace, we part ways and focus on the stage. When someone walks through their pain in this way, pleading with you to hold it too, you can’t look away for long.
Being an audience member at one of these shows means keeping the promise of this tour right along with Ben. It’s curative for him, as a grieving dad, to see an audience take the time to sit with Dorian’s music and pay attention to the words and rhythms he created. When I ask Ben about the lyrics to “How I Am,” he says he hadn’t gotten around to asking Dorian about the meaning behind the words. Now that meaning is up to the interpretation of whoever listens.
In 2013, when Dorian was seven and Judah was a toddler, the Kwellers vacationed at a tiny cabin in the snowy mountains of New Mexico. One night, Liz woke up feeling sick, and as soon as Ben stood up out of bed, he fell over. They grabbed the kids and rushed outside to call 911. They were told they’d suffered acute carbon monoxide poisoning, likely due to a leaky wall furnace, and had been minutes away from death. The experience rocked Ben and sent him into a depression that caused him to cancel all his upcoming shows and retreat from playing live. He didn’t step onstage for several years. When Dorian died, Ben knew that unlike in the past, he had to keep playing. “I saw how trauma just kind of took a chunk out of my life and I can’t let that happen again,” he says.
Each day after school, Dorian would go into his room to write and record music. For Kweller to turn his back on their shared passion would feel like a betrayal. “The easy thing would be to cancel the tour, but I know what that does, and the time you lose, just wallowing in your depression,” he says. “I know in my heart music is medicine.”
A few weeks before the tribute tour kicks off, I meet Ben at his place in Dripping Springs, a thirty-acre spread the family calls “the ranch.” The main house was built in 1886 and was moved to this location by the previous owner in 1981. The Kwellers’ dog Ruby and cat Poet roam around a living room full of art, books, and photos. A framed picture of Dorian sits on a table next to a small couch.
After Ben’s career took off, he toured with bands such as the Strokes and the Moldy Peaches and spent several years in New York, where he became an alt-rock mainstay. But after about nine years there, he felt the pull to come back to Texas. He returned to Austin, temporarily at first, to record his country-inspired 2009 album Changing Horses. Dorian was a toddler, and Ben and Liz loved the ease of their life in Texas. Dorian played outside with neighborhood kids, eating popsicles and running through sprinklers. The family found a ready-made community of musicians, including Spoon drummer Jim Eno, who owns Public Hi-Fi studio, where Ben recorded the album. It wasn’t long after their return to Brooklyn that Liz suggested they move to Texas for good. Ben had been missing his home state, so the decision was an easy one. For more than a decade now, he’s been an integral part of the Austin music scene, playing live at local spots including Antone’s and the Continental Club. He’s built his business here, too. One of the three structures on their property in Dripping Springs is a former MoPac railway station, currently being renovated to become the studio and headquarters for the Noise Company, which reps musicians such as Modern Love Child and Amy Cook. Ben, in his laid-back, rocker-meets-rancher fashion, calls this structure “the barn.”
Liz walks through the kitchen wearing a white T-shirt that says “Give a Damn” across the front, which I recognize from the tribute video as Dorian’s. She has her dark hair tied back and she’s heading out to feed a neighbor’s fish and then work in her garden. It’s a large fenced plot crowded with basil, beets, squash, tomatoes, watermelon, and zucchini. She started the garden soon after Dorian died, at the suggestion of a friend in Seattle who teaches therapeutic gardening classes. “She said, ‘Put that fence up, because I am coming and helping you get your hands in the dirt and cry,’ ” says Liz.
The way Ben and Liz talk about the ranch, it’s tough to imagine them ever leaving. Dorian and Judah would explore the land, go fishing, and brave snakes and critters they would never have encountered had the family stayed in Brooklyn. “You learn a lot living in the country,” Ben says. “You become one with the prickers and stickers and thorns. They became tough kiddos.”
Ben shows me the barn and checks in with the guys doing the renovation. We stop at the threshold and he points to Dorian’s initials, DZK, which Ben scraped into the cement after the accident. In Hebrew, Dorian’s middle name means “wolf”; Ben’s middle name, Lev, means “heart.” “Together, we’re heart of the wolf,” he says.
Later, Ben drives me to the entrance to the property, where Dorian is buried. It’s a minor miracle that they were able to get the state’s permission to create a family cemetery at the ranch in just a few days. Several years before, Ben got hooked on the idea of establishing a family plot on their land. He figured his parents would be buried there first, followed by himself and Liz, and then, decades into the future, his sons. Dorian and Judah loved the idea. They even walked the property with their dad and picked the location.
“It’s morbid, but it’s also kind of cool,” Ben says. He did his research, made some calls, and realized the property checked almost every box that would allow them to create a family cemetery in Texas —the location wasn’t within a floodplain and it had reasonable access to a public road, for example. The paperwork wasn’t as pressing as the demands of everyday life, though, and he assumed they had plenty of time, so he ended his pursuit. “I figured, no one is dying right now. We’re good.”
A few years after he abandoned that quest, a kind Hays County judge who met Ben on McGregor Lane that February night helped make it happen. Ben called the judge, who called the county clerk, and an hour later Ben’s phone rang. Dorian could be buried on their land.
“I was bawling my eyes out,” says Ben. “That was the first positive thing that happened since Dorian died. There is nothing more out of your control than having a loved one taken away from you unexpectedly. This was something we were able to control, and psychologically, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re calling a shot here,’ and that feels good.”
After he hung up with the county, he reached out to his friend Bobby Stevens, a previous owner of the property, to check if he still had the backhoe he’s used in building pools. Then he asked him if he’d ever dug a grave. Ben says Stevens didn’t hesitate in replying, “Nope, but I would for you.”
There’s a handmade bench with Dorian’s likeness carved into the wood next to the grave. It’s the work of a neighbor who surprised the Kwellers and dropped it off one day. There are plain and painted rocks piled at the top of the plot, and an emerald-green geode the size of a football, along with mementos left by friends, and Dorian’s skateboard and shoes. The Kwellers visit the site often. Like playing music, spending time with Dorian in this spot is healing. Ben used to be skeptical of religion, but says, “My Judaism has played a big role in helping me see things as clearly as I can. For the three of us that remain, I’m grateful we have traditions.”
Before we leave the cemetery, which they’re naming Dorian Oaks, in keeping with Jewish tradition I search for a rock to place on his grave.
In elementary school, Dorian won the “Friend to All” award, a fact that Ben, Liz, Howie, and Dee each recount with pride. That trait must have stuck: at the final tribute show at the Scoot Inn, skate kids and band kids who knew Dorian are in the audience. A teenager in baggy jeans with headphones draped around her neck stands nearby with her parents. Her eyes are searching, as if she’s on another plane from the crowd of strangers laughing and sipping beers around her. She heads to the stage, taking a spot right at the front. Her dad follows behind, telling his wife, “She doesn’t want to be by herself.” Her mom tells me that her daughter was in the marching band with Dorian. “We brought our kids here so they can see what healing looks like,” she says.
Eric Brown, an Austinite whose son went to elementary school with Dorian, says he burst into tears the second he saw Ben’s Instagram post about Dorian’s death in February. He’d first seen Ben play in Austin more than twenty years ago, and he got tickets for himself and his son as soon as they went on sale. Going into the concert, Brown tells me, “I wasn’t sure if I should grieve or rock.”
Scattered among the locals are fans from the Midwest and the East Coast who flew in for the show. Lissa, a New Hampshire–based Navy mechanic who first fell for Ben’s music in 2002, says she always wanted to see him live in Texas. When she heard about Dorian, and about the tour, she bought plane tickets to Austin for herself and her sister. “I can’t even imagine the pain of losing a child, and the tribute was so tender and heartbreakingly beautiful,” she says.
In the middle of the show, between the synth-rock surge of “Starz” (a song that makes me want to turn it up so loud I blow my speakers out) and the wistful piano melodies of “Until I Die,” Ben says, “I miss him so much. Me and Liz just walk around our house and just yell for him.”
Even with the planned set lists and repeated tribute video, the Austin and Dallas shows feel distinct and spontaneous. Both nights, Ben sits at the piano, harmonica at the ready, and plays his best-known love song, the stream-of-consciousness ballad “Thirteen.” But each time, his expression and the intonation are unique. Dallas, where he sang with urgency and vulnerability, was a hometown show. Ben got his start playing small clubs in Deep Ellum, and the audience was full of friends he grew up with, plus siblings and in-laws and nephews. Ben’s parents, Dee and Howie, were there, rocking the Zev shirts that were for sale at the merch booth.
Austin is a different sort of homecoming. The Scoot Inn show is bittersweet, since it’s the end of this experience for Ben, the band, and his family. The tour gave them a clear purpose; it provided schedules and plans. When the Kwellers pack up the merch booth and head back to the ranch, Liz will check the garden, they’ll unpack their bags, they’ll visit Dorian’s grave. Ben’s time on the road isn’t over, though. Witnessing Dorian’s excitement about music and touring sparked something in him. “When you’re a teenager and you have a passion in the arts, it’s the best thing. You get so lost in it. I want to get back to that,” he says.
Two weeks after Dorian died, Ben got a call from Ed Sheeran. The two are good friends, and Ben has opened for Sheeran for several years, his eclectic mix of indie rock, alt country, and swoony piano ballads accompanying Sheeran’s broody pop hits all over the U.S. and in stadiums across Europe. They first met in 2015, when Sheeran’s opening act couldn’t make an Austin show, and the concert promoter called Ben to see if he was free the next day. That show went so well that Ben ended up doing the entire tour. “We have this weird kindred thing,” Ben says. “Other than both of us having red hair and loving songwriting, we come from two different worlds but we just connect.” Sheeran knew Dorian; he’d visited the ranch. He knew his friend was in pain.
“He said, ‘Mate, this might be a good time or a bad time, but I just want you to know that I’m doing all these theater shows all summer and they’re yours. So if you want them, take them,’ ” recalls Ben, who calls it “the sweetest offer.”
The Sheeran shows are ideal for Ben because he’s playing only on Fridays, so he gets to spend time at home with Liz and Judah all week, and then fly out for a night or two to play. On a late July night I see him open for Sheeran. They’re playing the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which Ben calls “a dream venue, a place you hear about your whole career.” It’s a former tabernacle church where Booker T. Washington once gave a speech. It became the original Grand Ole Opry House, and then the Ryman, which has hosted musicians from Johnny Cash to Wu-Tang Clan. Finally, after thirty years as a performer, Ben gets to step on that stage.
In downtown Nashville, I walk past a seemingly endless parade of party buses full of bachelorettes dancing to alt-country hits, stomping their sequined cowboy boots to the beat. Mercifully, I enter the Ryman and find my seat. (Despite Ed Sheeran’s presence on many a wedding playlist, there’s nary a bachelorette in sight.) The old wooden benches and stained glass windows add to the warm, sacred vibe of the place. The stage is full of instruments, but when Ben walks out, wearing a Zev shirt beneath his flannel, it’s just him and Kitt Kitterman, who played Dobro and pedal steel on Changing Horses.
A couple sitting in front of me say they’re massive Sheeran fans, and they googled Ben and listened to a few of his songs before the show. “All of his songs are so different,” says the wife as her husband nods in agreement. They know nothing about Dorian, or the tribute tour. When the show starts, and Ben dives into his set, the couple nod their heads in rhythm with the music, never taking their eyes off the stage.
Ben moves easily from guitar to piano and back again. There’s no projector, no video clips, no mention of his son at all. I find myself longing for the tribute, and the callouts to Dorian. He tells me later that he missed doing the tribute, but that as a performer you have to read the room.
“No matter how much I wanted to talk about Dorian it would have been too out of context,” he says. “It was also emotionally draining doing that every night, so it wasn’t a horrible thing to have a slight break and talk to Dorian myself. The tribute was still happening behind the curtain.”
Ben is haunted by that Monday night in February when he checked his phone tracker and saw that Dorian’s car had been in the same spot for too long. The night he sped down McGregor Lane to see his worst fears become reality, as he crested a hill and flashing red lights from police cars came into view. He saw Dorian’s car, with the driver’s side door cut out, in the trees. He talked to the police. He told them they didn’t know what he could handle, and that despite their warnings, he needed to see his son. He called Liz and Judah. On that horrible winter night, they drove home in shock and pain, a family of three. In the months that followed, as the ice melted and the wildflowers sprung up, they came to understand that even as they ache for Dorian, they’re forever a family of four.
“I’m just doing what I need to do,” Ben says. “I had to just walk through this fire with my eyes open.”
On August 15, the city of Dripping Springs voted to name the local skate park after Dorian, and the family is creating a scholarship program to help young skaters and musicians in Texas. After Ben wraps up his Friday shows with Sheeran in September, he’ll perform at El Cosmico’s annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, in Marfa, and both weekends of October’s Austin City Limits Festival, followed by a fall tour in cities including Los Angeles and New York, for the twentieth anniversary of his album Sha Sha. He hopes to incorporate the Zev tribute into those shows. He’s been working on songs about his son, and he now realizes that a few lyrics he started writing before Dorian died are clearly about him, even though he didn’t know it at the time.
During my day at the ranch, Ben tells me something that I would hear again from Dee, Howie, and Liz in the weeks to come. It’s a story they each hold tight, an unmistakable sign.
The morning after Ben’s Denver show in July, the family had breakfast together. Dee and Howie left early and used a rideshare app to call a car. It was about 10:50 a.m. Liz walked outside a little after 11 and asked what they were still doing there. For some reason, the car wasn’t coming, so Liz used her phone to call another one. At 11:11, a number that many believe to be divine or lucky, her phone said a white Toyota Highlander—the same car her son drove—was en route. Then their eyes searched for the name of the driver.
It said, “Dorian is on his way.”