29 December 2006

Review: Benevento/Russo Duo

Old Office, 27 December 2006

(this review can be found in much cooler form over at Hidden Track, so check it out).

Is 5 years a long time? When I think back on what my life was like 5 years ago, it feels like a geological epoch. I'm sure the same can be said for Joe Russo and Marco Benevento who have gone from a pair of who-dats playing for free every week in a quonset hut of a venue to becoming a critical darling of the scene.... not to mention play acting as the latter half of Phish this summer, amongst other adventures. So, yeah, 5 years seems like a good time to pause and reflect. It's also a good excuse to get shitty drunk in the dank underbelly of the Knitting Factory. And so it was: a 5th anniversary Duo party, not even in the Tap Bar, but all the way down to the Old Office.

I got there a bit early, not sure what kind of zoo the crowd would be. As it turns out, the audience size was utterly manageable and there was an incredibly friendly vibe from front to back. Unfortunately, the show started pretty late, all things considered, and standing around in a bar for 2 hours with a friendly crowd meant many, many, many whiskeys before the first notes were played. It's probably fitting that much of the crowd was deep in party mode all night long. When Joe & Marco played the Tap Bar on a weekly basis, laying down the cement foundation for what they've become today, it was as much a social event as musical masterpiece. That was what always drew me to the music: you could stand right on top of the stage and marvel at the music coming out of their 8 collective limbs, lose yourself in the chemistry, dance your ass off, or just hang back, sip your cocktail and chat it up with your pals while the greatest background music you could imagine filled the silence around you.

If you go to a Duo show today, you are in awe before they even begin. How can two musicians take up so much space on a stage? Filling up the volume of a Bowery Ballroom where other nights 4, 6, or even 10 people might fit comfortably. Enough gadgets, television monitors, laptops, kids toys and wires criss-crossing the stage you might think they were preparing a shuttle launch and not a rock and roll show. When they started though, "organ and drums" really meant organ and drums, so I was happy to see they had laid it out bare bones style on Wednesday night. Not accouterments to speak of (although, I don't believe they schlepped their own gear, I guess some things do change in 5 years).

And what of the music, you might ask? Does it even matter? If they physically take up a stage and a half, then musically they occupy the space of a hundred stout men. It was that way when it was just two guys and two instruments and it continues to be so with loops and samples and laptronics. Heck, how many ways can I say "brilliant" without appearing to be a paid shill? Getting that close, though, actually hovering over the band brings back that old perspective, that old love. I remember when I wrote this those many years ago, with just a shade of hyperbole. Well, I got an email from a guy telling me I was an idiot for fawning over Joe Russo the way I did -- I probably still have it tucked away in an old account somewhere. Well, I tell you, watching Joe Wednesday night made me realize, for the umpteenth time how very special a talent this guy is: blazing, flailing beauty. Early on in the first set, during possibly "Raindrops Whisper Words" (although don't quote me on any setlist items) he played some of the most entrancing drumming I've ever witnessed, a totally hypnotic stretch that left me agog, his limbs leaving circular trails in the air: fingerpainting with percussion. Marco reminded me about the times when it was all about that left hand -- the appendage with its own agenda, declaring independence from the groove.

There was a lot of that old school vibe, plenty of Zeppelin and other too-fun covers. We got our "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" -- the original signature Benevento Russo number -- with very little urging from the crowd. Each tune brought on waves of acknowledgment from the crowd, the memories we've all shared, many times as a collective, over the past half-decade laid out in real time. Drunken waves of nostaligia were upon me all night long: of Freaks Balls past, of Makers Marks past, of that late, drowsy evening at the now-departed Fez with maybe 10 of us watching on as Joe & Marco took Jay Rodriguez to Duo school, of the shows after the show when you felt like there was nothing going on anywhere in the world compared with what you were hearing come out of a simple organ and drum kit. I can only hope in 5 years we'll have the next anniversary party where Joe Russo and Marco Benevento will "slum" it and come back to play the Bowery Ballroom and we'll remember how great it was when they first played there, and then they'll take the party back to the Knit and it'll be a blur of precision and passion and then it will just be a blur.....

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