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Turn Me On: Keyboardist Marco Benevento and His ‘Hot Dance Piano Rock’

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Keyboardist Marco Benevento is best known for having spent over twenty years playing music with his seventh grade buddy, drummer Joe Russo. In addition to their extensive history of playing as the Benevento/Russo Duo, the two have spent the last six years in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, a band whose genre-bending improvisations and virtuosic interplay have made them an increasingly revered live act.

When not playing in the band colloquially referred to as “JRAD,” Benevento has continued to front his own band, currently touring in support of Benevento’s latest solo album, Let It Slide. Benevento recently spoke over the phone to Rock Cellar about making Let It Slide with producer Leon Michels, his own insights into what makes JRAD special and finding his voice as a keyboard iconoclast.

“I was first interested in music when I was trapped in my room with a couple of synthesizers and a drum machine and a four-track recorder,” Benevento recalled of his initial foray into DIY experimentation from his parents’ home in Livingston, New Jersey. “That was about when I was in seventh grade. I got way into just putting the headphones on and getting into sounds and recording. Then I got deep into jazz in college.”

Benevento fondly remembered his time at Berklee College of Music, “I wound up taking more credits than I needed to, studying classical music, upright bass, and African percussion. I was a total nerd. I still am a nerd.”

After graduating in 1999, Benevento reconnected with Russo, who had been touring in the jazz fusion band Fat Mama. “He’s the opposite of me, in that he never went to school,” Benevento shared of his longtime band mate. “He just moved to Boulder, Colorado and went on the road with the Fat Mamas. And just learned naturally, by listening and touring and playing all the time.”

“I basically hit the road in the early-mid 2000s with Joe,” Benevento said of the beginnings of their time playing as “The Duo.” When asked about Russo’s greatest influence on his own playing, Benevento lovingly mused, “The biggest influence that Joe has on me is that he reminds me to be a badass. For all these years that we’ve been playing, he’s never let up. He’s always just killing it on the drums like no one else can, that I’ve ever seen. And he does it in such a natural way. He plays so well every night. It’s a reminder that as a duo, we had fun impressing ourselves with the music we were able to play together.”

In 2009, Russo was invited by Bob Weir and Phil Lesh to join Furthur, one of several Grateful Dead offshoots that existed between Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 and 2015’s “Fare Thee Well” shows. During that time, Benevento co-founded the indie label Royal Potato Family, and continued to make solo albums while touring with his namesake band.

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When asked how JRAD was initially conceived, Benevento remembered, “I saw Furthur once when Joe played with them at Madison Square Garden. I really loved the way Joe played with [keyboardist]  Jeff Chimenti. I thought the band sounded great. But I didn’t know the inner workings of any of that. When Furthur was ending, I sarcastically said to Joe, ‘You’re not going to feel like you’ve got to carry the torch of this Grateful Dead stuff, are you?’ I thought he was going to be like, ‘Hell, no. We’re going to do something else.’ Instead, out of the blue, he said, ‘Well, I’m not going to lie to you. I might ask you to learn some Grateful Dead songs.’ I remember, everything got quiet. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. What?’”

In 2013, JRAD was christened, consisting of Russo, Benevento, Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz and guitarists Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton. When asked what about this specific line-up makes JRAD such a dynamic live band, Benevento illuminated, “We starting from playing with each other for at least ten years prior to JRAD even starting. Which I think is a big part of why we can play with each other so well. Dave and Joe and Scott and I have a band called Bustle In Your Hedgerow where we play the music of Led Zeppelin. There’s a bit of a Wrecking Crew sort of vibe with us. We’re a rhythm section, and we’re a band, that has played all kinds of music. There’s musical vernacular that we all sort of speak. And we understand each other. And know how to respond to each other. That takes years and years. That takes decades for bands to actually get.”

“The second aspect of it all is our biggest attitude up there is, ‘Fuck it,’” Benevento enthusiastically continued. “We can’t reinvent the wheel, no pun intended. But we can just give it all we got, and sometimes totally wreck it and destroy it, and really have it be confusing and different, and then pull it back into the song. We’re really good at just letting it break and pulling it all back together again. And that is easy for us to do because we’ve played with each other for so long. And it’s not easy. Every night is different. We have that musical camaraderie because we’ve been doing it for so long.”

“We wound up doing our first gig at Brooklyn Bowl. It went over really well,” Benevento recounted of JRAD’s fortuitous beginnings. “Every show got better and better. It just sort of took off. Kind of unplanned. But then, as soon as Joe saw people showing up and catching on, I think he realized, ‘Oh, I better come up with a plan, and figure out how to do this, so it just grows beyond our belief.’ And it totally did.”

JRAD now tours nationally throughout the year, selling out venues including Red Rocks, the Greek Theatre and annual three night-runs at The Capitol Theater. On how JRAD became such a reliable draw on the national stage so quickly, Benevento revealed, “Our manager, Peter Costello, he’s also our sound guy. I think he and Joe sort of planned out the shows and the places we would play. After nailing all the experiences of touring with Fat Mama, and with myself, and with Furthur and with all sorts of other folks, I think Joe realized the secret ingredients that make it a very special thing. I’ve got to hand it to him, he picked the all the right places to play, all the right weekends, all the right rooms. Worked with all the right promoters. Just made it all seem bigger than it really was. And now it’s bigger than we ever thought.”

While JRAD is currently on a brief hiatus, Benevento released Let It Slide this past September, a release supported by four new music videos and ongoing solo touring. Let It Slide was the co-creation of Benevento and producer Leon Michels from The Arcs. Benevento and Michels were introduced by Michels’ Arcs bandmate Richard Swift, who had produced Benevento’s 2014 solo album, aptly titled Swift.

Of the kismet that led to Let It Slide, Benevento shared, “The Arcs are a bunch of New York dudes who are really well-known. They have an amazing little crew, another Wrecking Crew. Leon Michels had to miss the last week of touring because he was having a kid. So Richard Swift recommended to Dan Auerbach that I sub for Leon for the last week. I hopped on board and played with The Arcs for a week. Which is basically three shows. It was so much fun. There was a sort of crossover period where I flew in the night before, and Leon played the gig and sort of showed me the ropes. I thought he was pretty cool. I checked out his music. And I loved his music. I just reached out to him after that tour and said, ‘I’m working on a record. Would you be down to produce it? Let’s hang out.”

Of how the two became fast friends, Benevento recalled, “We made it happen and we got together and we got along. Leon also lives upstate, by Woodstock, by me. He shares a love for tennis that I have. It turns out our kids are the same age. We just started hanging out a lot, working on the record. We recorded at Queens, at Diamond Mine Studios. Then we did the rest upstate.”

Benevento and Michels worked extensively over the course of a year at Fred Short, Benevento’s home studio. “We would get up early and play tennis and then work on tunes. We did overdubs and finished the record. Then at 3:30 the girls got off school and we had to be home. It was super fun.”

Let It Slide showcases Benevento’s signature brand of “Hot Dance Piano Rock,” a term coined one night by friends trying to help Benevento answer the question, “What kind of music do you play?” When asked how he and Michels managed to reflect the full spectrum of Benevento’s influences while making a truly seamless and endlessly enjoyable thirty-six minute album, Benevento shared, “Leon had a bigger picture in mind. Because I had like eighteen or twenty demos that I played him. He picked the tunes that wound up on the record. We both kind of came up with the order. We both came up with a bunch of different songwriting ideas for the songs. Like the song, ‘Humanz,’ which is the only instrumental on the record. We bonded over the fact that we were into Ethiopian music, Ethiopian Jazz. We wanted to have that sort of color on the record. I played him the demo and said, ‘Oh, yeah. Let’s work on that today.’ That’s one example of how we kind of picked and chose the tunes. Because he was kind of envisioning the record as it was going on, maybe more than I was. Because I was kind of lost in the details of the lyrics and thinking of how the songs should go. Leon was good at nailing the bigger picture.”

On how Let It Slide came to be title track and first video from the album, Benevento recounted, “Every time I played the record to my friends, they were like, ‘Let It Slide! That’s your radio hit.’ That one was a hit with Leon as well. And I just thought that would be a good title for the record, too. That song always stood out as a two-and-a-half minute banger. Something that was super simple and catchy. Then it just became the title of the record. Then, after the fact, we realized that a lot of the songs have references to letting go of things and not letting things weigh you down. Thoughts like that. There’s a string of thread running through the lyrics between tunes of, ‘If you finally let it go, you’ll feel better.’ That wasn’t even a thought when we were making the record. But it just sort of came out that way.”

To help promote the release of Let It Slide, Benevento tried his hand at directing the music videos for the title track as well as “Say It’s All The Same” and “Nature’s Change.” On how he came to direct and find the aesthetic for the videos, Benevento said, “We do a lot of DIY stuff around here at Woodstock. I remember talking to Leon about the videos. He said, ‘You should just make them yourself. Just learn Final Cut. Just make your own videos. It will be way cooler.” I remember one day thinking, ‘Okay … My own videos … I wonder if on eBay I can find a 1988 VHS handheld recorder?’ I looked and of course immediately found one. It was like eighty bucks. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll put eighty bucks toward my video budget right now.’ And I bought a VHS camera, brought it into the studio, plugged it into my computer, I thought, ‘This looks so cool. This looks so old.’ And the colors were all right. It reminded me of growing up, seeing my uncle with the handheld VHS recorder. So it looked cool. I said, ‘Let’s do that.’”

Benevento is currently wrapping up a West Coast run and will be hitting the road with his solo band throughout the first half of 2020 in addition to keeping up with JRAD’s increasingly busy touring schedule. Of his solo band’s current gigs, Benevento shared, “Our shows are super upbeat. People are dancing the whole time. Karina Rykman’s singing along with me. I really like the boy-girl vocal combo. I’ve always like that. She brings a lot of energy to the stage. And her bass playing is great. DB, our drummer, is just a monster. He can play the shit out of the tunes. We’ve been having a good time peppering in all these new songs with the old songs.

“We’re definitely playing a lot of tunes from Let It Slide. But we still are playing some old tunes from Invisible Baby and Between the Needles and Nightfall and our earlier records. There’s a bunch of singing. But there’s a bunch of instrumentals in there as well. It’s about two hours of Hot Dance Piano Rock.”

To turn yourself on to Marco Benevento, go to marcobenevento.com for merch and tour dates and to Marco’s instagram at @marcobenevento22.

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