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Benevento/Russo Duo: Live At Revolution Hall, February 19, 2005

Mark Sabbatini By

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A high noise-to-musician ratio isn't hard for many jam bands. Decent noise is another story.

The Internet is packed with free performances from groups "breaking the bounds of sound," but truth is a lot of it is similar and gets repetitive fast. Load the MP3 player with a day's worth of shows and maybe one emerges as worthy.

Such as this one.

Keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo aren't a new duo, having met in the eighth grade 15 years ago and now performing about 200 shows a year. The description of their material isn't revolutionary, focusing on "splinter indie rock and jazz with sweepingly efficient arrangements that snap, crackle and pop the fine lines one finds in trying to categorize music."

But words are worthless - stage dialect is what counts.

The Benevento-Russo Duo offers more than even diehard supporters might want, with more than 60 live shows at the Internet Archive, and more paid and free material at their official site The 18-song, 2.3-hour set at Revolution Hall in Troy, N.Y., isn't necessarily among their best - just the most recent as of this writing. But it's a good showcase and features a clean sound free of audience annoyances that irks fans posting comments about a number of other shows. Among those one of the most highly recommended is a Sept. 4, 2004, concert at Snow Ridge Ski Area and, based on a quick listen, I agree it's a quality listen and perhaps a better introduction for general listeners than the Revolution Hall set (try "Ho-Down" to hear how they treat some highly familiar material when deciding if they're worth downloading). Also, they frequently play with well-known, top-talent musicians such as saxophonist Chris Potter, John Medeski and Mike Gordon, making a browse through the shows worthwhile for modernistic fans.

Benevento dishes out lead, bass and texture lines in bucketloads - without sampling or overdubbing, he insists. Perhaps because he fills so many roles he's crisp on passages from mellow '60s funk ballad interludes to freeform nu-jazz without too much of that over-the-top clutter that pushes similar acts into the less flattering category of noise.

Russo's also all over the map - sometimes calming, sometimes maniacal - and arguably he's better at the former where he has more direction and fewer clichés. On the Revolution Hall's opening "9X9," for instance, a fast-but-subtle intermittent track feeds Benevento's triple-threat introductory buildup and allows his highly sparse leads room to speak. The subsequent "Scratchitti" gets the hard rock/funk treatment and, while mildly catchy, sounds too much like something any band - including those hanging out in the garage - might mess around with on a weekend night.

There's various modern jazz and rock passages throughout (was that really a snippet of the "Mary Tyler Moore" theme in "New Song"). Still, the beat-heavy jam mentality is evident and at times they wander into that territory where opinions about whether they're exploring artistically or meandering don't mix. "3 Question Marks" is frenetic enough, but spends several minutes opening with a rather jumbled collection of clashing noises before getting its act together for a much-improved second half drenched in evolving funk/fusion stylings from the '70s to the '00s.

The final five songs are instrumental Led Zeppelin covers, apparently a regular thing, featuring Scott Metzger on guitar. They're generally recognizable with a few twists, and perhaps more evenhanded and enjoyable for new listeners than the high and low points in the originals. Metzger is fine without standing out, if only because so many guitarists cover this material skillfully. The 13-minute "Heartbreaker/Ramble On" with its multiple musical personalities and energetic end-of-show solos (it's the song before the encore) highlights this part of the performance.

The Duo isn't at the top of the mantle with some of the other groups they play and compare themselves with, but solidly above average in a highly crowded field is nothing to be ashamed about. The density and complexity of their best work is remarkable, which despite some pedestrian material is why further investigation into their downloadable shows deserves consideration after the roundup of others have been deleted from the hard drive.

View the Revolution Hall show on the web. The MP3 files in variable bit-rate quality (recommended) total about 200MB in size.


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