Midwest Musings: Marco Benevento
Wed. May 12th, 2010
Words and pictures by Rex Thomson
Hot on the heels of his new release, “Between The Needles And Nightfall”, Marco Benevento has hit the road with a rhythm section and a fierce desire to share his idiosyncratic vision of the piano’s possibilities with the world. Having seen him with his percussion partner Joe Russo several times, I was more than aware of the talent and skill Benevento displays. He, like all the true artists, seems to lose himself in the moment, musically, and he lets his muse take him where it will. Benevento’s style of play, a combination of traditional piano wizardry, and a well honed use of effects and old school, low fidelity children’s toys to creates a hypnotic blend of Jazz, rock and pure bliss. While some artists can get caught in a trap of studio tricks and perfectionism, Benevento seems to be totally lose and free in his playing. It’s spellbinding to watch him do what he does, as he adjusts every tone to ear, not some preconceived formula, and every strike of the keys is intended to make something sound right in the context presented, not some imagined standard of uniformity.
The Marco Benevento Trio show was held at the Hideaway Saloon, here in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The Hideaway is known for its beloved regulars, a fiercely loyal bunch of music fans, and its policy of bands never starting earlier than tenish. Give everyone a chance to get in and get settled seems to be their thinking! Which, as I am used to the start times being late, is why I was surprised to hear the show was starting at nine on WFPK, our local AAA public radio station. Checking the paper and seeing nine there as well, I zipped over to the show five minutes after nine, desperately hoping they had not started without me. Luckily, all those media reports were wrong, and I found Benevento good naturedly chatting with fans and hooking up the rest of his equipment. What strikes you first about Marco is the easy way he communicates with everyone around you. Not one to stand and brood, he took the time to chat with all who approached them, joking and smiling with everyone.
The size of the Hideaway promotes intimacy, and gives the fans a chance to say thanks for all the music they hear, and Benevento seemed truly touched and motivated by the well wishers and fans of his stylings. The proximity of the players to the fans; aided by the low set stage and the lack of barriers adds to a sense of seeing it all happen as if just for you. I was able to watch his fingers strike the keys, the intense human interplay between man and instrument, and watching the hammers strike the wire, the chain of thought to motion to sound, laid out to bear for all to see. After a brief soundcheck, and a briefer stretching of the legs the trio was ready to begin. They opened with three songs in a row from the new disc, and sold a copy to me right then and there! The interplay between his hands, as one hand would play a tinkling melody, while the other was plays sharp, giant staccato strikes. And, at times, noodling with a series of effects and crazy repurposed children’s toy all to make a effect a soundscape the was wholly original, not just to Benvento’s sound but to the moment itself. Covering a song, “Golden” by local sons My Morning Jacket, Benevento began the first of a series of jokes about his moving to the city, due to his frequent visits. He even went so far as to invite us back to his new home, which seemed like a good idea, as long as you failed to notice the large mobile home parked directly in front of the door of the club, and his upcoming tour dates. This was the first show of the run, though from the interplay between the members, it was impossible to tell.
Dave Dreiwitz and Andy Borger covered the rhythm section duties admirably, providing whatever was needed for the situation. Slipping into almost “Sleep mode” while Marco would go on a softer exploration of the piano, and crashing like a buffalo through a stream when Benevento would set of run after run of keyboard fireworks. Over the course of two sets, Marco Benvento took my already high opinion of his work, and blew away all previous examples of his live skills. Having seen him as part of the aforementioned Benevento Russo Duo, with the incomparable Stanton Moore in Garage A trios, and even the late night set at Bonnaroo backing up Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon I was still not prepared for how wonderful a performance I witnessed. This was easily the finest I had seen Marco Benevento play, and truly he is entering a kind of personal renaissance.
As I try and do both words and pictures, I try and take a few songs to sit, eyes closed to the distractions and visuals that I normally train my camera upon, and just listen. The three songs I did were a perfect breakdown of the show. The first was a rocking tune, featuring the whole band turning it loose. As a good set list does, the next song took me off guard, slowing the pace down and letting the trio explore a jazzier, spacier place in the ears and mind of the listener. I felt my “Space smile” creep onto my face, and I instantly found myself in that place that the truly great music can take me to. So glad to be home, I thought to myself! Then, a another new song, brimming with sound effects and bleeps culled from the effects and toys arrayed around the piano, which drove the crowd into a frenzy. A lesser talent might easily fall into the trap of playing to the crowd, and relied far more heavily on these colorful sonic additions. Whole careers are being made on this style as I type these words. But not Benevento.
The effects were just that, effects in his tool box. Shiny flourishes added to an already rock solid build, a song writing skill that does not need to get it’s strength from tricks, only the treat of an occasional riff in a way no human ear had ever conceived. The crowd was packed into the narrow club, and they received every note with joy and a almost reverence. While I wandered I heard the uninitiated say, “Omigod, he’s so amazing!” and the long time followers simply say ”…” The space face was on many a mug, mine own included.
When the last song ended on a huge confluence of cymbal crashes, resonating bass thumps and angelic, miles high peals off the piano there was no doubt we had all just witnessed something magic. A musician entering a new phase of skill and mastery of his craft, a comfortabilty many would envy. Taking time afterwards to sign autographs and cd’s Benevento heard time and again how much he had impressed the attendees. He thanked each in turn and kind and thanked them for their attendance. At that moment it occurred to me the near perfect balancing act I had just witnessed. Not only the balance between the musicians on stage, but also the balance between the listener and band. Everyone fed off the other, and all gave the love they received back, immediately. I only wish the world worked as well as that show did. We would all live in a much happier place!