Root Down: The Royal Potato Family
Benevento at The Bowery Ballroom
Things have a tendency to get blurry in New Orleans at 2 A.M., especially during Jazz Fest. So it wasn’t entirely unexpected that a good chunk of the audience at Tipitina’s French Quarter didn’t notice when the members of The Slip cut their set short after three tunes—only to play a mini-set with some new members and a new sound as Surprise Me Mr. Davis.
While a few more people did seem to notice when former Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey bassist Reed Mathis, Davis keyboardist Marco Benevento and Slip/Davis drummer Andrew Barr Slip/Davis replaced guitarist Brad Barr and bassist Marc Friedman onstage for a set as the Marco Benevento Trio, few in attendance seemed to realize that one-by-one the musicians changed into formal suits—the signature dress code for Surprise Me Mr. Davis. The six musicians continued to switch into their musical costumes as they cycled on and off the stage throughout the night’s six-set musical round-robin until all five members of the ensemble were dressed to the nines and ready to close out the morning around 5 A.M. with a few Davis tunes.
According to advertisements, the night featured “The Slip, Surprise Me Mr. Davis and Marco Benevento Trio,” three stylistically different bands culled from the same pool of musicians. Since five of the six musicians perform together in Davis, it would be easy to describe the project as a super group containing members of The Slip and Benevento’s trio—or even as a “mother band” with a few satellite projects hovering around it. But, in many ways, it’s easiest to describe the musicians and their other collaborators as a family. “We were sitting backstage and looking at the [show] poster,” Davis’ baritone-voiced singer Nathan Moore says from the stage, explaining their decision to offer a revue filled with alternating mini-segments by all three bands rather than three 40-minute sets. “We all looked around the room and said, ‘Well, that’s us.’”
In the past two years, those bands and a slew of associated acts have been loosely branded as The Royal Potato Family, which is also the name of Benevento’s two-year old label. Though it’s based in Brooklyn where Benevento and Friedman now live, the family has roots across the continent with Moore in Virginia, The Barrs in Montreal, JFJO in Oklahoma and Mathis in San Francisco, where he currently plays bass for Tea Leaf Green. While confusing to some, the musicians—who’ve been working together on and off for nearly 20 years—see loose existence as no different from the revolving bands that family labels like Motown and STAX put together.
“Maybe [the band] Nickelback might be an exception where they’re just kind of an island and nobody wants to associate with them, although I have heard they’re nice guys,” says the always thoughtful and somewhat reserved Brad Barr. “But these families come about because that’s how musicians are. It connects all the way back to Muscle Shoals [Ala.] and Aretha [Franklin].”
The roots of The Royal Potato Family actually predate the musicians’ involvement with the collective. In the late ‘80s, a group of New England prep school students formed The Slip as a classic rock cover band that played schools and parties around the Northeast. Guitarist Brad Barr joined in the early 1990s and eventually brought in his brother Andrew on drums, as well as Andrew’s classmate, Marc Friedman, on bass. The group cycled through a number of players before settling on the core trio of Friedman and the Barrs. The musicians ended up studying at—and famously dropping out of—the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where Friedman met Marco Benevento during his freshman year in 1995. The keyboardist actually sat in at some early, seminal Slip shows and the band considered adding him as a permanent member but their paths veered in different musical directions.
“They went on tour and I stayed at Berklee,” the shaggy-haired Benevento fondly reminisces, with school days-memories stoking his perma-grin. “We didn’t see each other that much while I was in school, but when I graduated, I decided to follow them across the country in my parents’ car. It was like, ‘Holy awesomeness, I graduated college.’ Little did I know that I’d be driving across the country a lot after that….”
“When you graduated, you took your journey,” the soft spoken Andrew Barr says to the keyboardist. “You had your Wurlitzer and a bright orange safety suit and would come onstage and play with us. It felt like there was this family coming out of Boston, though [New York’s] Wetlands was certainly part of it, and there was an audience from Colorado and California. The amazing thing is that, when I think of all these memories, there was an audience for it all.”
While Benevento studied at Berklee, The Slip developed into one of the most important bands on the emerging new school jamband circuit. The Slip was the first “New Groove of the Month” featured on the fledgling Jambands.com website in 1998, signed to The Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks’ Flying Frog label in 1999 and even recorded 2002’s Angels Come on Time in Trey Anastasio’s fabled barn at a time when few musicians were granted access to the space. Over time, The Slip’s sound morphed from its Berklee-inspired jazz/rock improvisation to incorporate elements of folk, world music, minimalist post-rock and even 21st century indie rock. “Who says a band has to stay on this one path that is always a consistent thing?” Brad Barr asks rhetorically. “Some things take all kinds of different paths and different lengths of time to arrive at what they are.”
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