Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Marco Benevento Trio :: 02.03.09 (Late Show) :: Yoshi's :: Oakland, CA
Much like Marco Benevento's newly released Me Not Me (read JamBase's review here), the late show at intimate, acoustically perfect Yoshi's Oakland began in a swirl of stardust. As the music solidified, I found myself wondering, mouth agape, "What do you call this stuff?" It ain't jazz or rock in any orthodox sense, nor is it laptop music or even avant-garde in their most common forms. A touch too odd for the mainstream and maybe not "off" enough for The Wire crowd, what Benevento, Reed Mathis (electric bass) and Andrew Barr (drums) do together is raw AND smarty-pants clever, primordial ooze grape stomped until there's nectar shots for everyone – an inclusive concoction meant to be enjoyed by all regardless of their place on the listening spectrum.
Set aside the blinding skill of these three for a moment and just reflect on the feel they generate together. Each has spent their career complicating expectations and steadily expanding the possibilities of their craft. At a base level, they enjoy unhindered freedom but also understand the value of practice, technique and more book learnin' ways. Mark Twain once remarked, "A smart person knows all the rules so he can break them wisely," and there's few better living examples of that adage than this trio. Not unlike the triptych of Les Claypool, Mike Dillon and Skerik, these three are forging their own private language, and with no vocalist hogging the spotlight it's easy to eavesdrop. This first Tuesday of Benevento's February residency at Yoshi's, where his collaborators will shift each week, offered an up-close glimpse of one the most vibrant instrumental combos today with positively explosive chemistry and a genuinely exciting aura that anything, just anything, is possible when they gather.
Benevento's pleasure in playing alongside Barr and Mathis is apparent in his rarely absent smile and the repeated introduction/applause fishing for his bandmates after almost every song. "That's Reed Mathis over there. Learn to Reed!" he laughed. "My name is Pocahontas on the piano." To which a wiseass in the crowd yelped, "How!" like it was an episode of F Troop. Benevento's response? "Yes, how do?" Spontaneity lurks like a goblin in Benevento's schema, waiting impatiently to goose the beat or wrench chaos from ebullient loveliness (or vice-versa). They are the mischief makers and the dreamers of dreams, and having a ringside seat is bloody entertaining.
|Marco Benevento :: 02.03|
This last point – entertainment – is an under-recognized aspect of Benevento's relatively quick rise in the live music world. He's fun to watch and those he ensnares with his newfangled music seem to have a complete blast, Barr and Mathis very much included this night, where quite serious musicianship was slapped with sloppy blobs of echo and glowing reverb – small, inspired touches that kept the ground unstable enough for no one, musicians and audience alike, to become complacent. The rush of ideas and interesting noises was further complicated by Jay Cooper's excellent live visuals on a screen behind the trio, though in total honesty they were hardly necessary. Close your eyes and this music directs fully decorated scenes behind your lids, a moving play of shapes, ideas and colors that made my heart race two beats faster and sent me into the night wanting to re-read Jung.
Benevento, in his way, strikes me as a kindred spirit to folks like Richard Feynman or Noam Chomsky - brilliant minds that grasp the über-structure of things in a way most of us never will. His intense focus while slowly turning an effects knob or slicing in keyboard flourishes atop his Steinway thunder is something to behold, and it was clear despite rehearsals that much of what we heard was generated in the moment, as much a surprise to the guys onstage as anyone. All this vibrancy came through in the propulsive, authoritative clatter of Barr (who, simply put, has never sounded better or more nakedly powerful), the exhaustingly creative piano runs of Benevento, and in the largely pocket playing of Mathis, who startlingly is the "quiet" one in this group. What Mathis excelled at in this set was commenting on and accentuating the positive in what Benevento and Barr were doing, easing off his "lead bass" ways in JFJO a bit and finding crannies that actually needed filling.
Naturally, the focus is the big black piano and the articulate fingers and feet working it. Benevento seems hell-bent on honoring and learning from anyone who's ever rocked a piano right, so there's plenty of jazz ancestors in his sound (these ears pick up the wide landscapes and movement of Ahmad Jamal, the angular brightness of Abdullah Ibrahim and the profound emotion of Don Pullen) but also flashes of Liberace, Billy Joel, Tom Waits, Jerry Lee Lewis, robot-rock Herbie and oodles more. All of which serves his current inclination to adapt pop into wild new forms stripped of language, yet made to speak in ways more subtle than syllables and sentences.
|Andrew Barr :: 02.03|
Beck's "Sing It Again" was given a mournful, largely solo rendering, and their exquisite take on The Zombies' "She's Not There" simply leaves me stymied (a rare, rare feat for an opinionated clatter-trap like myself). Zeppelin's "Friends" got a 21st century jellyroll treatment, and Leonard Cohen's "Seems So Long Ago Nancy" was gold flecked and full of heavy lifting bubbles, romance refined into perfumed notes. After a bouncing run through The Knife's "Heartbeats," Benevento said, "That was the first time we've done that like that," as succinct a distillation of the improvised arts as ever spoken. "It was my song of the year [in 2008]. I listen to it three times a day," he added with a chuckle. Then, acknowledging the kickoff of his residency, he remarked, "I get to come back! I love your country!"
Several times during the show and again afterwards, I found myself reduced to saying, "That was re-dunk-u-lous!" Uttered with swirling eyes and a dry mouth, it's reflective of the impact this trio possesses. Like other vaguely speculative music (Subtle, TV on the Radio, Buck 65, Akron/Family), there's insatiable curiosity driving this trio. Where Benevento's vision differs from the cited peers is his recognition of the pathos in pop, which he transmogrifies into amazing new forms that caper oh-so-winningly.
Marco is on tour now; dates available here.
Check our exclusive 2009 feature/interview with Marco Benevento here.
Continue reading for a few more pics of Marco and the boys in Oakland...