Building Castles In The Sky: Recalling The Early Days Of The Duo
Words by: Aaron “Neddy” Stein
Before there was JRAD or GRAB or GRaB, before there was Bustle In Your Hedgerow or Jam Cruise, there was The Duo. And before The Duo – who will reunite aboard Jam Cruise 15 January 20 – 25, 2017 – there were just two guys, drummer Joe Russo and keyboardist Marco Benevento, making music together in the Tap Bar on Thursday nights in New York City.
Let’s set the scene: the Tap Bar was a tiny room in the downstairs of the old new Knitting Factory on Leonard Street in Tribeca, one of three performance spaces in the venue. It’s name was a generic description of what it was: before having a wide array of tasty brews on tap was de rigeur for music venues from the Lower East Side to Timbuktu, the Tap Bar had an impressive selection of brews. The music in the room was always free: really it was a place to go before or after a paid show in the main room and grab a drink and maybe see something worthwhile. And when I say “free” it was free — there was no petition for a few bucks or hat or bucket passed.
The legend goes that Russo, who was making a name for himself as a drummer to keep your eye on, was offered a gig in the galley-apartment of a room for cheap enough that it made sense to just play as a duo. Yes, The Duo was a duo for primarily economic reasons, which made sense, in a perverted kind of way, in post-9/11 downtown Manhattan. As fate would have it, Joe had recently been reacquainted with Benevento, a childhood friend, and really, fate would have it.
The gigs started slowly, as these things do. There was no money needed to see these two play, the currency required was just knowing. Those of us who knew tried our best to make it there weekly, after something else nearby or, as the knowledge set root, we’d leave the house with the Tap Bar being our sole destination. It was always a duo, but at first sometimes one of the guys was out of town or occupied with something higher-paying and so it was Joe and someone else or Marco and one of many other talented drummers in the city. Those gigs were fun, too, but they paled in comparison to the real thing.
Some called them “Joe & Marco” others “Marco & Joe” — it didn’t really matter. The only important thing was the “&,” and the fact that it was the two of them together. There was a chemistry and a magic that transcended cliches about chemistry and magic between music. Something about their shared past and shared present and shared future came out in unexpected ways. Their show-stopper cover of “Just The Two Of Us” seemed to carry extra weight and meaning, a love song between drums and organ.
Oh wait, that’s right, there was music, I should probably mention that. “It’s all about Marco’s left hand” we would mutter to each other while finding ourselves nauseated trying to keep up with Joe’s flailing limbs. There were covers, lots of covers, all cracked open like eggs and scrambled or fried or hard boiled or cooked sunny-side-up on a piece of toast. It was groovy, you could bob your head to it, or you could just stare at the two and let your mind wander and spin like the loudspeaker in the Leslie amplifier while nursing your microbrew.
As originals crept into the setlists things got even more interesting. There was something different about the music and it wasn’t just because it was a duo, although that was part of it. Yes, they were a duo which made them an easy fit with guests: one week there was Justin Wallace on bass making things extra funky. Another week Eric Krasno on guitar finding seams to fill with his own grooves. Derek Trucks came down to check it out after a nearby free gig, but politely declined an invitation to sit in (his loss!). The interchangeability and flexibility Joe & Marco showed as a singular unit at the Tap Bar would foreshadow their future together and eventually apart.
While it was fun to be a part of four or five in the room getting your mind bent, secrets this juicy stay secret for only so long. Soon two tables of heads bobbing became four, became all of them and then the room was standing room only. Naturally (now-capital-T) The (capital-D) Duo outgrew their homebase. It felt like they had played Thursdays there forever, but really it was a few months before they moved on. The pair left a small city’s worth of venues in their wake as they grew. They didn’t literally implode no-longer-among-us rooms like Tobacco Room, Tribeca Blues, Southpaw … but the energy and inventiveness of the live show did figurative damage enough. Tours and festivals followed, and of course an album …
Naturally, an album. There was Darts which is a damn good primer on their original material. But it makes sense to jump straight to Best Reason To Buy The Sun, an impressive achievement, a work of art, a statement. More Radiohead than Soulive, they were now the Benevento Russo Duo in full. These were more than songs, but compositions. Sure, they were still a “jam band,” improvising their way through still-”had to be there” live shows, but with BRTBTS it was clear that this was just scratching the proverbial surface.
The new material took the old “two guys are doing all that” to another level. The follow-up was just as good but with the clarity and cleanliness of confidence. This music transcended in many ways. To those who had been following all along it was no surprise when the album was reviewed in Pitchfork (a 7.6 no less!). David Fricke was a fan. If not worldwide, the scene was on alert.
Along the way other projects seeped in. Side projects went on their own tours, high-end cover bands and solo careers and there’s Mike and there’s Trey and the immense center-of-gravity of the Grateful goddamn Dead and the next thing you know The Duo is gone. Well, they’re not gone gone, of course, Joe and Marco are still around and they’re still around as Joe & Marco (or is that Marco & Joe?).
The magic is still there whenever they’re on stage together. The paragraphs of conversation contained in an arched eyebrow or the pages of music conveyed in a smile between them is there. At every Joe Russo’s Almost Dead show, there is a subliminal, but highly evolved, version of the language that was invented a seemingly lifetime ago at the Tap Bar. And so you’ll forgive the occasional “bring back The DUO!” tweet or cheer for anything resembling “Becky” at a JRAD show or even the throwback thrill felt when Russo took to playing all-improv little-”d” duo shows in Brooklyn last year (free for those who “knew,” but a bucket by the door in case the music should so move you).
Bands come and go and there are more than enough to fill your days, but some leave a hole the way an old lover or forgotten friend might, but as long as Marco and Joe kept playing together anything seemed possible … and now there’s actually a The Duo show on the horizon, a high-seas reunion on Jam Cruise 15 sailing in January. The magic continues.