Joe Russo Can't Be Stopped

By: Andrew Bruss

Joe Russo by Rod Snyder
Drummer Joe Russo's stature on the concert circuit saw a drastic rise during the summer of 2006, a season that opened up a whole new world to him. But for every door that opened, it seemed as though two more closed in its place. By the end of the year, Russo and Marco Benevento (keys, organ, piano) slowed their longtime collaboration, the Benevento/Russo Duo, to a crawl, playing only sporadic shows.

Following a tour that featured Mike Gordon of Phish fame adding some bass to their jam-heavy, freak-jazz, drums 'n' keys combo, Gordo and Trey Anastasio hit the road for a summer tour with The Duo filling out the musical gaps once held by Jon Fishman and Page McConnell. Billed as GRAB, The Duo went from playing nightclubs to following Phil Lesh & Friends, night after night, with members of Phish providing national exposure they'd never expected.

Fast forward to December of 2008. The Duo are back on the road and playing a few gigs leading up to a late-night New Year's gig with Surprise Me Mr. Davis in Manhattan. In a Dunkin Donuts across the street from Boston's Paradise Rock Club, Joe Russo talked about The Duo's hiatus over a cup of coffee, getting right to the point of a topic he'd spent countless hours thinking about.

"This is all in a very positive context [because] obviously [touring with Trey and Mike] was an extraordinary experience for us. But, at the same time, we were slowly gaining steam in the way we wanted to and in control of the music we were making," says Russo. "It was very word of mouth. We always had a diverse crowd - hippie kids, indie kids, middle aged jazz heads - and we liked the mix. We were happy with the mix of groups we had coming to see us, but it felt like after that [GRAB] tour the flood gates opened for one side of it and the other side got lost."

Gordon, Russo & Fishman by Jessica Piccirilli
Given the privilege Russo described in having had the chance to play with Anastasio and Gordon, he wasn't looking to send off the message he was unhappy with the experience, but it was clear that things played out less than desirably. "Obviously [GRAB] brought more attention on a certain scope. But at the same time - not to discount the experience - we released a record at the same time as the tour and all people cared about was the tour. The record got swept under the carpet," observes Russo. "I think we lost a lot of our identity on that tour."

The exposure The Duo received as half of GRAB brought them a specific brand of notoriety that refused to view them outside of the Phish context, and a decision was made that the only way to get back on the track they'd envisioned for themselves was to "go away" for a chunk of time.

"Honestly, we didn't like where it was at the end of 2006. We were both very burnt. We'd gone from having a gradual rise in what we were doing, then we had this peak that we almost didn't want. It was hard to get away from, and at the time, it didn't feel like a smart decision. We felt like we had to go away for a couple of years and reboot," says Russo. "I don't care who comes to see our band; if you like our music, that's great. But the first time someone yelled a Phish song at us when we were playing as The Duo, I got really fucking pissed. I was like, 'That's it, all we are now is this [band] that has to do with Phish.'"

Joe Russo by Jay Blakesberg
During a phone interview, Benevento, explained the hiatus, "We were going really strong together for about five years, so I think it's sort of natural that we split apart for a second and did our thing. It's really inspiring. It helps us learn as musicians to work on other outlets."

During their respective breaks from The Duo, Benevento started a family and began playing as the Marco Benevento Trio, while Russo started playing with Tom Hamilton, frontman for electro/jam/pop ensemble Brothers Past. Featuring a rotating lineup with Hamilton and Russo as its core, they called themselves American Babies and hit the circuit with folksier rock tunes that went easy on the jams and heavier on the lyrics in ways Russo previously experienced. Both Hamilton and Russo were burnt out from their primary projects, and American Babies was their breath of fresh air. When asked about Russo's time with American Babies, Tom Hamilton says, "With The Duo, I feel like Joe possibly... there's pressure on him because it's his project. It's his baby. But with the [American] Babies, it might have been easier on him because he got to do other things he wanted to do. He's a guy who's been in instrumental bands his entire career, and I think being in a band where there were songs with words that he could sing too, getting him into singing [was good for him because] it's something he always wanted to do."

In addition to American Babies and Bustle in Your Hedgerow, Russo has been busy exploring all kinds of different terrain with acts as varied as Ween side-project Gene Ween Band, Simon Posford's psytrance outfit Younger Brother (new album due this spring), A Big Yes... and a small no, and his very own Joe Russo Quartet featuring bass master Todd Sickafoose, pianist Erik Deutsch and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger. To say the guy wears many hats is an understatement, he's so busy in so many different projects if you blink, you're gonna miss something.

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