The Benevento/Russo Duo Higher Ground
South Burlington, Vermont
April 8, 2006
It was exactly a year ago April 6th that Marco Benevento and Joe Russo appeared at Higher Ground in South Burlington to effectively celebrate the release of their breakthrough album, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Ropeadope, 2005). Now it is 2006 and this is not the same duo.
But that's ultimately a good thing. Whether because they were playing to a relatively more seasoned audience or perhaps (not unlikely) they are more seasoned musicians and performers themselves, Benevento and Russo were less demonstrative and more focused as they played.
Banging through a handful of short punchy takes on familiar material from the last album, like "Welcome Red, "Sunny's Song and "My Pet Goat, the the players nevertheless reaffirmed they haven't stood still in the past year: constant touring, by themselves and in scattered but regular appearances with Mike Gordon, in addition to occasional outside projects (such as the keyboardist in a group with members of the Slip and JFJO), has given them a new perspective on their stage presence and their musicianship.
Take the ever-present "Becky, for instance. Its hammering rhythm generally sends an electric shock through an audience, and this Thursday's night was no exception, until Benevento pumped so much corrosive keyboard texture into the tune it nearly exploded. The noisy ambience that arose from that performance threatened to destroy the momentum of the single extended set, until Jon Fishman dashed onstage and took over the drum kit from Joe Russo (who, to his humble credit, gladly relegated himself to percussion alongside the former Phish drummer and odd tinkling on the electric piano alongside his partner).
As fine a drummer as Russo isand he is arguably the lead instrumentalist in the duo, since Benevento's elementary hooks and melody lines fill in the gaps in the often syncopated, generally fatback drumming of his partnerFishman demonstrated how it's possible to parse a beat, embellish a pattern, and overall embroider drum work in fine detail. And then there's his wacky persona, exhibited by the gleeful grins that came and went at a moment's notice as he played for a few minutes then dashed offstage with a high-five.
This unusual interlude may or may not have been planned as such, but it effectively worked to delineate the first half of the performance from the second, during which portion the duo played selections from, and made mention of, a newly recorded album to be released in July of this year. While one tune, "Soba, sounds firmly ensconced in what you may now recognized as the duo's primary stylerockin' rhythm, catchy sing-song melody and rumbling underpinning"Memphis is altogether different, a ruminative keyboard part supplemented by an acoustic guitar progression played by Joe Russo (?!).
More familiar material, hearkening back to guitarist Brad Barr's appearance earlier in the evening, brought the set proper to a frenetic finish, the comfortably full Vermont club whipped into a frenzy preliminarily by Benevento, Russo and Barr flailing their way with panache through Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be (with Barr showboating from atop a small amp!?). But even the response to that performance paled to the roar that arose when, after bringing the crowd down easy and somewhat abruptly leaving the stage almost as an afterthought, the duo returned to play with not just Jon Fishman but bassist Mike Gordon.
Slipping all so comfortably right into the groove that is "Mike's Song, the bassist's head bobbed at just as furious a pace as his resonant basslines. At the same time, Fishman played like a man possessed, simultaneously rediscovering the tune as if reintroduced to an old friend. When the two Phishmen locked gazes, all smiles, you had to wonder what was going through their minds. Certainly, the infectious pleasure of their presence made it fun to see Benevento and Russo, and no doubt what prompted Barr to return, along with Jazz Mandolin Project leader Jamie Masefield (adding random percussion) and JMP keyboard hornman Mad Dog, who tossed cool hornlines over a subdued rhythm that, when the duo and Gordon were effectively left to play, morphed into a jagged instrumental version of the Doors' "LA Woman.
Ragged is probably the right adjective to apply to this encore, so in terms of sophisticated jazz chops, it was decidedly lacking. As the progressively evolving style of the duo, elemental as it is, no doubt will leave "serious" jazz fans bemused at best and turned off at worst. But Marco Benevento and Joe Russo are definitely of the new schooland you might say, in the graduating class at this point. The duo's latest Higher Ground appearance suggests they are definitely not alone.