By: Ray Chelstowski
On Saturday night, Marco Benevento returned to StageOne in Fairfield, CT to a sold out show. There in the intimate FTC 225 seat “black box” theater he and his trio put on an electrifying performance that made seating irrelevant and the mood festive wire to wire. I was at the performance with FTC board member Jamie Orvis who said: “We’ve had Marco perform here four times since 2010 and his fan base has grown steadily with each appearance. The energy that flows within FTC’s StageOne was on full display Saturday night. This is a band that delivers such a contagious kind of joyful exuberance that you just had to groove.” As my other concert companion Brian Engstrom said: “These guys have a really great vibe and tonight they just crushed it!” Indeed they did!
Benevento is a keyboard wizard whose band leadership skills are reminiscent of the late Leon Russell. Like Russell, Marco can seamlessly steer the ship in a new direction with the simple flutter of his eye. But his real genius lies in the remarkable imagination he brings to the creative journey; from in-studio to live on stage. In that live setting he reminds me quite a bit of NRBQ co- founder and keyboardist Terry Adams. Like Adams, Marco brings forward a variety of keyboards and sounds, often with quirky offbeat moments that make his music uniquely sparkle. And like Adams, he is a tireless entertainer who revels in bringing a Marx Brothers level of zaniness forward that captivates the audience and augments the music in ways that are often difficult to describe. These shows in turn become their own musical Tilt-A-Whirl ride.
Benevento is perhaps best known for his work with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Garage A Trois, and Bustle In Your Hedgerow. He has also played alongside and/or toured with John Medeski, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, and Phil Lesh. His eight studio album; Benevento, arrives in June. In contrast to Let It Slide, his minimalistic 2019 full-length collaboration with producer Leon Michels, Benevento is heavily saturated and experimental, built from countless layers of keyboards, bounced to 4-track tape. Deeply connected to the West African psychedelia of artists such as Francis Bebey, Kiki Gyan and William Onyeabor, the songs are rhythmic and repetitive, built into thick mosaics of sound. Each track features at least one keyboard solo, allowing Benevento ample time to explore sounds from the deepest recesses of his gear collection.
Natural Funk Projekt had the opportunity to get backstage between sets and talk with Marco about his creative process, how he approaches being the leader of the band, and where he believes the magic really happens in his unique form of “jam.”
Goldmine: How do you approach composition and the creative process?
Marco Benevento: Oh man. There are so many different ways. The fun way is to start on the drum machine, firing up the synthesizer, and just coming up with a good groove. The other way is to sit at the piano and come up with a couple of chords and melodies. But when we perform our songs live like we did tonight there are places where we can stretch and do different things. That’s where the magic and the fun jam stuff happens.
"When a song really hits you a certain way it makes you want to play it and let people know that that’s also how you feel." - Marco Benevento
GM: The three of you communicate effortlessly on stage. What’s the key to making those exchanges so seamless?
MB: We were just talking about how nice it is to be a trio because there’s a lot of roof. In the end we just listen to each other. If our bassist Karina (Rykman) walks over to me I’ll stand up and listen to her. And if she goes to a certain place I’ll go along with her. Or if our drummer starts doing a certain thing like he did last night by suddenly going into “Swingtown” we’ll just follow because we’ve tried it before. I mean Karina has been in the band for six years and I’ve been writing this music for the last fifteen years or more. So when you tour you begin to know those moments where you can look at each other and say “let’s go!” Lately we have been jamming a bit more, exploring more, and just breaking the mold. We’ve been stretching out intros and outros. I’ve added more synths so it’s not just a piano, bass and drums all night. I also have a looper to add the drum machine parts. So it’s a trio augmented by a bunch of other things. That’s one of my favorite parts about this lineup.
GM: If you could add one more instrument to this lineup what would that be?
MB: Oh, it would instantly be a guitar. Absolutely! I love rhythm guitar. It’s a no brainer. Or, as I think about it I’d add another drummer (side note: drummer Dave Butler would add an additional floor tom).
GM: You covered the Lorde song “Royals” tonight. Is that built into your set list or was it an “in the moment” call?
MB: Our lighting guy’s nephew was here and he doesn’t get out to a lot of shows. Our guy thought that if we played that song his nephew would be able to better understand our show and what we’re all about. We’ve played it before, but not in like eight years. We played it tonight in sound check and it was really fun. When I first heard that song on the radio I stopped my car and didn’t get out until I found out who was singing it. I was like “I love this person and I love this song. This is brilliant.” It’s always stuck with me. We’re going to play another cover tonight called “Heartbeats” by a band called The Knife. When a song really hits you a certain way it makes you want to play it and let people know that that’s also how you feel.
GM: You remind me quite a bit of Leon Russell in that he masterfully led bands big and small without letting that take away from his showman ship.
MB: That’s a really nice compliment. I’m a huge fan of Leon Russell. As a matter of fact we learned “Out in the Woods” and played it at The Capitol Theater a few weeks ago. You’re right. He was a masterful bandleader who with the look of his eyes could do it all, and that’s the vibe of our band. I’m the leader but I want everyone to chime in. We’re all doing it together. There’s no “me” in this band. That’s the great thing about our music. This group of musicians is so talented we can take this almost anywhere.
Go to marcobenevento.com for more information.