Root Down: The Royal Potato Family

Mike Greenhaus on January 11, 2011

Benevento at The Bowery Ballroom

Things have a tendency to get blurry in New Orleans at 2 A.M., especially during Jazz Fest. So it wasn’t entirely unexpected that a good chunk of the audience at Tipitina’s French Quarter didn’t notice when the members of The Slip cut their set short after three tunes – only to play a mini-set with some new members and a new sound as Surprise Me Mr. Davis.

While a few more people did seem to notice when former Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey bassist Reed Mathis, Davis keyboardist Marco Benevento and Slip/Davis drummer Andrew Barr Slip/Davis replaced guitarist Brad Barr and bassist Marc Friedman onstage for a set as the Marco Benevento Trio, few in attendance seemed to realize that one-by-one the musicians changed into formal suits – the signature dress code for Surprise Me Mr. Davis. The six musicians continued to switch into their musical costumes as they cycled on and off the stage throughout the night’s six-set musical round-robin until all five members of the ensemble were dressed to the nines and ready to close out the morning around 5 A.M. with a few Davis tunes.

According to advertisements, the night featured “The Slip, Surprise Me Mr. Davis and Marco Benevento Trio,” three stylistically different bands culled from the same pool of musicians. Since five of the six musicians perform together in Davis, it would be easy to describe the project as a super group containing members of The Slip and Benevento’s trio – or even as a “mother band” with a few satellite projects hovering around it. But, in many ways, it’s easiest to describe the musicians and their other collaborators as a family. “We were sitting backstage and looking at the [show] poster,” Davis’ baritone-voiced singer Nathan Moore says from the stage, explaining their decision to offer a revue filled with alternating mini-segments by all three bands rather than three 40-minute sets. “We all looked around the room and said, ‘Well, that’s us.’”

In the past two years, those bands and a slew of associated acts have been loosely branded as The Royal Potato Family, which is also the name of Benevento’s two-year old label. Though it’s based in Brooklyn where Benevento and Friedman now live, the family has roots across the continent with Moore in Virginia, The Barrs in Montreal, JFJO in Oklahoma and Mathis in San Francisco, where he currently plays bass for Tea Leaf Green. While confusing to some, the musicians – who’ve been working together on and off for nearly 20 years – see loose existence as no different from the revolving bands that family labels like Motown and STAX put together.

“Maybe [the band] Nickelback might be an exception where they’re just kind of an island and nobody wants to associate with them, although I have heard they’re nice guys,” says the always thoughtful and somewhat reserved Brad Barr. “But these families come about because that’s how musicians are. It connects all the way back to Muscle Shoals [Ala.] and Aretha [Franklin].”

The roots of The Royal Potato Family actually predate the musicians’ involvement with the collective. In the late ‘80s, a group of New England prep school students formed The Slip as a classic rock cover band that played schools and parties around the Northeast. Guitarist Brad Barr joined in the early 1990s and eventually brought in his brother Andrew on drums, as well as Andrew’s classmate, Marc Friedman, on bass. The group cycled through a number of players before settling on the core trio of Friedman and the Barrs. The musicians ended up studying at – and famously dropping out of – the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where Friedman met Marco Benevento during his freshman year in 1995. The keyboardist actually sat in at some early, seminal Slip shows and the band considered adding him as a permanent member but their paths veered in different musical directions.

“They went on tour and I stayed at Berklee,” the shaggy-haired Benevento fondly reminisces, with school days-memories stoking his perma-grin. “We didn’t see each other that much while I was in school, but when I graduated, I decided to follow them across the country in my parents’ car. It was like, ‘Holy awesomeness, I graduated college.’ Little did I know that I’d be driving across the country a lot after that….”
“When you graduated, you took your journey,” the soft spoken Andrew Barr says to the keyboardist. “You had your Wurlitzer and a bright orange safety suit and would come onstage and play with us. It felt like there was this family coming out of Boston, though [New York’s] Wetlands was certainly part of it, and there was an audience from Colorado and California. The amazing thing is that, when I think of all these memories, there was an audience for it all.”

While Benevento studied at Berklee, The Slip developed into one of the most important bands on the emerging new school jamband circuit. The Slip was the first “New Groove of the Month” featured on the fledgling website in 1998, signed to The Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks’ Flying Frog label in 1999 and even recorded 2002’s Angels Come on Time in Trey Anastasio’s fabled barn at a time when few musicians were granted access to the space. Over time, The Slip’s sound morphed from its Berklee-inspired jazz/rock improvisation to incorporate elements of folk, world music, minimalist post-rock and even 21st century indie rock. “Who says a band has to stay on this one path that is always a consistent thing?” Brad Barr asks rhetorically. “Some things take all kinds of different paths and different lengths of time to arrive at what they are.”

Surprise Me Mr. Davis

Singer/songwriter Nathan Moore entered the family in ‘99 after seeing The Slip perform at High Sierra. “They just blew me away – it was a life changing moment,” says the Virginia-bred Moore a trained magician who at the time was playing in the eclectic quartet ThaMuseMent. “I stopped them and was like, ‘I just wanted to tell you I loved your set.’” The feeling was mutual and The Slip brought him on the road. Moore and Brad Barr would trade song ideas over cigarettes and Moore’s roots-oriented story songs profoundly influenced the band’s direction.

“We were in the van together for six weeks right after 9/11 and the Iraq war was starting,” Friedman remembers. “That was just a very heavy time and having Nathan there was one of the coolest things that ever happened to The Slip.”

During a snowstorm in 2003, The Slip recorded a series of songs with Moore which served as the blueprint for the psychedelic folk band Surprise Me Mr. Davis. “There was no track-listing, no mention of who was playing,” Moore remembers. “Just sort of an anonymous record.”

The Slip and Moore continued to divide time between their own projects and Davis, sometimes sharing songs and styles and, other times, following their collective muse into various pockets of music. “There was a lot of cross-over material, but we did songs differently,” Andrew Barr explains. “But there was definitely a period where they were seriously inspiring each other.”

Meanwhile, Benevento had graduated from Berklee and started gigging around Boston with his own combo, The Jazz Farmers. He eventually moved to New York and reconnected with his old middle school classmate, drummer Joe Russo. The old friends formed the Benevento-Russo Duo in 2002 and swiftly became favorites on the downtown New York jazz and jam circuits. In offshoot bands with everyone from Phish bassist Mike Gordon to alt-jazz freaks Skerik and Mike Dillon to NYC jam-rockers Dave Driewitz of Ween and Scott Metzger placed The Duo at the center of the improvisational universe.

Through Russo and The Slip, Benevento also became friendly with Oklahoma improvisational wiz group Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (JFJO). “I remember Joey [Russo] saying, ‘You gotta meet this pianist I grew up with,” JFJO co-founder Brian Haas says. “I was skeptical – then The Slip was like, ‘You gotta meet this cat Marco. He comes out and plays with us.’”

“If the Slip and Jacob Fred had a baby, it would be The Duo,” Benevento sums up.

Synergy and hard work made 2006 a banner year for the members of the future Royal Potato Family. After seeing The Slip perform at Mountain Jam, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James started championing the group in the media, including The New York Times. Later in the year, The Slip released Eisenhower, a genre defying album that saw the group exploring song-driven, post-jam indie sounds. The trio performed a victory lap of large venues with My Morning Jacket and appeared on late night TV in early 2007.

The Duo also scored some mainstream attention after Anastasio brought the band and Gordon into the studio to work on Bar 17. The four musicians hit the road for a summer amphitheater and festival run, including a series of shows with Phil Lesh. Benevento and Russo – separately and together – emerged as respected musicians among indie and experimental sects and received praise from the notoriously snobby music website Pitchfork Media thanks to their progressive 2006 album Best Reason to Buy the Sun.

Moore was also making a name for himself as a solo performer, releasing his own recordings and amassing a cult following. One band, San Francisco’s Big Light, even took its name from one of his original compositions.

But two years later, in 2008, the two central forces of what would become Royal Potato – The Slip and The Duo – managed to veer off a seemingly endless highway.

Several factors contributed to the collective’s slowed pace, ranging from family commitments to increased financial pressures to a desire make things smaller and more organic to the simple need for a break after over a decade on the road. The members of The Slip found work with the likes of Sonya Kitchell, Natalie Merchant, Will Bernard and numerous local acts.

“It kind of feels like one living, breathing band up there,” Andrew Barr says of his current hometown Montreal. “You go to the coffee shop in the morning and there are guys from Arcade Fire, Plants and Animals and Broken Social Scene all having coffee. That’s where I’ve gotten most of my gigs.”

In addition, Brad Barr released a solo album, Andrew joined the band Land of Talk and Friedman started a parallel career helping bring likeminded bands into the Rock Band world (a longtime Slip fan has been involved with music-based video games since Guitar Hero first came out).

All three musicians play in Benevento’s revolving solo group, which focuses on piano-based music in a trio format. JFJO also reached a crossroads in 2008 when bassist Reed Mathis left the band to join Tea Leaf Green fulltime.

“The bottom line is it’s not that easy to do what we do,” Friedman admits. “The whole conversation is kind of based around The Slip’s touring history and then when we get to the conversation of The Slip and what’s going to happen, its silence. There are a lot different ways it could go and it also, for the sanity of ourselves – and the fans – it could end.”

Utah Green

In late 2008, Benevento decided to start a label to release the cover-heavy solo album Me Not Me, with the help of his friend and publicist Kevin Calabro who had years of experience running day-to-day operations for jazz legend Joel Dorn’s Hyena Records and, prior to that overseeing the folk and blues label, Tomato.

“I always thought, ‘All these records labels are failing – why don’t we start one so we can fail too?’” Benevento says with a laugh. “The confidence with the record label came together with Kevin. He has a connection with Sony and R.E.D. for distribution.”

Benevento and Calabro’s initial signings came directly from their social circle: Moore, Skerik, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, JFJO, Yellowbirds (the new project from Sam Cohen of Duo/Slip tour companions Apollo Sunshine) and jamband super group Garage A Trois (Benevento, Skerik, Mike Dillon and Galactic’s Stanton Moore).

Recently, the label has signed Utah Green who Calabro describes as “a lovely folk singer and poet from the mountains outside of Asheville, N.C.” The Royal Potato Family has also quickly developed into a catch-all phrase to describe members of the extended Benevento/Davis/Garage A Trois family – even if the projects aren’t signed to the label (case in point: the gentle, pastoral The Barr Brothers).

“When it came time to really put it together, I realized that just calling it Brad Barr was kind of lonely and kind of not true because Andrew had been working with me on it every step of the way,” Brad says of the band which is currently shopping its debut to labels.

With Royal Potato behind it, Surprise Me Mr. Davis brought Benevento on as a fulltime member and posted an album’s worth of songs for free online. The group’s latest recording sessions were not without their share of excitement: The band decided to record in Andrew Barr’s Montreal studio but Moore was turned away at the Canadian border because of a previous drug arrest. The musicians retreated to Burlington, Vt. where they met area player/Gordon collaborator Brett Hughes at a bar and recorded a set of songs over five days – although Andrew left after two days to get married. The group plans to return to the studio this fall to complete a new album, which may include some new songs Moore wrote on a baritone ukulele. The results blur retro ‘60s sounds, modern folk, jazz and even doo-wop.

“It’s still the debut record,” Moore says of the latest Davis sessions. “On that level, I think we could not write a single thing and still be very fresh. But just for the sake of [leaving] a legacy, we want to make an album – I want the proof of what I’ve experienced so far.”
“I feel like this is the coolest music I’ve been a part of,” Brad Barr says before stopping himself. “I’ll say that about any good night I have, but I really believe it – there’s a reason it’s taken all these years to come together. We got to know each other and now we’re really playing. The shows are like riding an immense, cool wave.”

As for the other Family projects: JFJO released its 20th album and recently scored a Beethoven composition; Moore is working with Brian Elijah Smith on a solo record tentatively called In the Basement; The Duo hopes to revisit the studio in 2011 and The Slip plans to follow up with some recordings it made earlier this year. In a sense, Royal Potato has have become greater than its individual bands.

“I’m the kind of person that wants to do what I want to do and I wouldn’t want to be in just one band. It’s like taking photos – sometimes you have to take 400 to get 10 good ones,” Benevento offers as a comparison. “And sometimes you have to make a community [to create those opportunities].”

Though Benevento’s hyper, playful personality is the opposite of his quiet, serious friend Brad Barr, musically, they share a similar vision. “To most people, it would probably look absurd what we’re trying to do with all these projects,” Barr admits. “But if you are going to thrive in music, you have to have a community.”