Marco Benevento: Home on the Fringe
Photo by Dino Perrucci
Even at the height of The Duo’s popularity, Benevento busied himself with a range of projects that continued as his solo career took off. In addition to numerous tours with his constantly evolving trio, Benevento performed in the instrumental, ?uestlove-endorsed Led Zeppelin cover project Bustle in Your Hedgerow with Russo, guitarist Scott Metzger and Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz. As if to emphasize his varied interests, he joined both the freak-jazz group Garage a Trois—with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon—and the avant-folk band Surprise Me Mr. Davis with Nathan Moore and The Slip. He participated in a range of jam sessions and—even though he was selling out far larger venues—honed his chops through free, public jam sessions in tiny spaces like Brooklyn’s Bar 4.
“We used to call it ‘mental floss,”’ Benevento says of his free gigs. “You essentially can’t play a wrong note, but you end up playing wrong notes. You’re trying not to try, just really getting at it, trying to improvise and play music spontaneously—be weird and childlike. Just close your eyes and go.”
In many ways, Benevento’s jazzy, wordless melodies and ‘80s-influenced keyboard firecracker bursts are 180 degrees from the pastoral, rootsy, harmony-laced music that defined his current home turf’s sound nearly a half century ago. But as his career has progressed, Benevento has embraced a love of simple song structures and direct hooks that would have made local legends like Helm proud. And, in other ways, Benevento and his comrades have grown into a loose, collective-like ensemble similar to The Band—backing various stars, collaborating on different projects, moving from big ticket events to local performances with ease.
His sophomore solo album, 2009’s Me Not Me, featured My Morning Jacket, The Knife, Beck, Deerhoof, Led Zeppelin and Leonard Cohen covers that were stripped down to their melodies. He transposed those diverse influences on 2010’s mostly original Between the Needles and Nightfall —the album also includes a well-placed Amy Winehouse tune—mining different hooks for his live show and splicing them together almost like a DJ would construct his set. (The album’s strange title references his wife’s acupuncture sessions shortly before she home-birthed their second child.)
With the release of Me Not Me, Benevento also solidified his place as one of his scene’s spokesmen when he formed The Royal Potato Family label with Kevin Calabro, who had worked under jazz luminary Joel Dorn. Though the label has expanded its reach, their first signings were drawn from Benevento’s inner circle—Nathan Moore, Yellowbirds and Garage a Trois. He jokes that the label is “all Kevin’s thing” but his friendships are tied to Royal Potato Family’s roots. During a recent trip, Moore stayed at the Beneventos’ and his kids wouldn’t stop asking for the singer when he left. (“They take after their mother,” Benevento deadpans about his wife’s love of the folk musician’s songs.)
As he’s out in a rowboat on Parade Pond, Benevento finds himself doing business with another friend. Paul Green—the founder of School of Rock and the inspiration for Jack Black’s character in the film of the same name—calls about using one of the keyboardist’s songs in a forthcoming movie promo. (Benevento gives him a “bro-deal” on it.)
“It’s a delicate balance all the time,” says Benevento later in reference to the demands of music and business and his stoner-like desires to simply relax and enjoy the environment around him. “Sometimes I think, ‘Do I want to go out there and write something? Nah, I’m just going to chill here and lay down!’
“It’s a long process of going down the road—of traveling, of performing—and there are a lot of things to get over, a lot of milestones,” he continues, staring at his studio through his living room window. “Sometimes you don’t realize how easy it can be or how music should really be universal; how you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but just try to fit in and be unique at the same time.”
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