Meet the Benevento Russo Duo (Relix Revisited)

July 22, 2019
Meet the Benevento Russo Duo (Relix Revisited)

In honor of Marco Benevento’s birthday, we’re looking back on this profile of the Benevento Russo Duo, which originally appeared in the December/January 2007 issue of Relix

In an outpost-like corner of Lawrence, KS, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo are preparing for a mid-June performance at the Wakarusa Music Festival. It’s been a busy week for the longtime friends, collectively known as The Benevento-Russo Duo, mostly spent outlining their amphitheater tour with jamband demigods Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and Phil Lesh. But tonight The Duo is alone in the hippie-rock wilderness, without its full arsenal of instruments or even its longtime tour manager. Along with my co-host, Benjy Eisen, I’m trying to get Russo to play an acoustic version of his song “Memphis” for Relix’s Cold Turkey podcast.

At first Russo is hesitant, but 15 minutes after bribing him with a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey, the drummer is seated behind an acoustic guitar, stumbling through the track off the band’s album Play Pause Stop. Soon Benevento joins in, scatting on humorous covers of songs by The Scorpions, Mr. Big and, yes, Phish (shameless plug: check out the new Relix website for the video podcast of them doing “Divided Sky” from this session). From their frat-boy banter to their dorky grins, Joe and Marco could be any 29-year-olds relaxing late night at a festival, but after the recording stops, the conversation’s tone begins to shift. Young fans emerge from the ether, sheepishly saying, “It’s an honor to meet you” and “I’m psyched to see you on tour with Phil!” Russo shrugs, somewhat unaccustomed to the attention. “People kept mistaking me for Trey,” the shaggy, bespectacled redhead jokes. “So I decided to cut my hair – otherwise it’d be a long summer.” It’s a unique time to be hanging with Russo and Benevento, watching as the two performers age from working-class musicians into tomorrow’s rock stars.

The Duo’s origins date back 15 years, when Russo and Benevento were students at New Jersey’s Franklin Lakes Middle School. Suburban preteens, Russo, a drummer, and Benevento, a keyboardist, first bonded in detention. For a while, the guys toyed around with starting a band, but ended up going to different high schools where their lives veered in different directions.

After graduation, Benevento enrolled at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, studying jazz piano and film score composition. He also began gigging at local jazz bars and befriended fellow freethinking students like The Slip’s Brad Barr, Marc Friedman and Andrew Barr. It was an incredibly fertile time for the Boston music community, with jazz inspired improvisational bands such as Soulive, The Miracle Orchestra and Addison Groove Project bouncing around the Northeast’s college ‘n’ club circuit. Benevento put together his own combo, The Jazz Farmers, which toured with moderate success until 2003.

After his mom passed away, Russo picked up his G.E.D. and followed some friends to Boulder, CO, where he fell in with Fat Mama, a seminal jazz-funk combo known for its early use of electronics. Fat Mama earned a small but loyal national following, selling out Boulder’s 700-person capacity Fox Theatre along the way. In 2000, the group received the inaugural New Groove Award at The Jammys and, that summer, Fat Mama was featured in an issue of Entertainment Weekly with Phish on its cover. But praise doesn’t always add up to financial success and Fat Mama eventually called it quits. “I was sick of touring and [at the time] I was engaged,” Russo says. “I kind of gave up on the whole band thing. I was broke and started working at a label. I figured playing in a band was something I’d look back on as part of my early 20s.”

Around the millennium, Russo migrated east and became a man-about town in Manhattan, often holding court at the downtown club The Wetlands. His resume from the period is all over the map, ranging from jazz-funk jams to trance-fusion rave-ups with the Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein. At one point, Wetlands talent buyer Jake Szufnarowski even knighted the drummer, dubbing him “Sir Joe Russo.”

“It really was a great scene at Wetlands,” Russo says. “I owe Jake so much. He’d offer me all these gigs and, when I needed money, he’d let me do lights on a Tuesday. We’d all hang out down there and get sloppy.”
In 2001, Benevento moved to New York and began playing pick-up gigs with a variety of jazz-centric musicians. That May he went to see a packed Medeski, Martin and Wood performance at acid-jazz womb Tonic. Instead of waiting in line outside, the keyboardist ran across the street to use the bathroom at The Lansky Lounge, where Russo was performing with members of his Boston crew. “We both kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Benevento relates. “We swapped numbers and started calling each other for shows.

Beginning with a show at the Moroccan restaurant Tagine, Benevento and Russo started gigging around New York City in a number of different configurations. The session players first performed as a duo at The Wetlands in 2001 at a Madonna birthday tribute organized by Szufnarowski. “It was one of the many nights when I was too lazy to put together a band,” Russo jokes, drinking lactose-free ice coffee near his Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment. Russo speaks in a loud whisper – quietly cool. “After Wetlands closed, Jake started booking the Knit [Knitting Factory], so he gave me three different nights to put together. One was this avant-garde thing, another was a rock band with Scott Metzger [RANA], and then I asked Marco for this funk, jazzy duo thing. At first it was just a month and then it became two, three… slowly those other projects faded away.”

The Duo played in the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar every week for a year, slowly pulling in fans from different corners of the city. “It was a free show so people would show up, sometimes after other shows,” Benevento explains while preparing brunch ( “eggs a la Benevento” ) in the basement of the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his fiancé. “The NYC Freaks [an influential Yahoo group of music fans] came and [Soulive’s Eric] Krasno stopped by. It was about endurance, a journey filled with lots of improvisation, lots of notes and lots of harmonic challenges.”

He flips through a binder filled with burned CDs, tracing The Duo’s evolution from a stripped-down organ-and drums combo to the complex mutt of jazz, rock, jam and indie sounds it’s become today. “I have every Duo show dating back to our second gig,” he says with a hint of taper pride. “Before that we had a very selective taping policy.”

Benevento’s apartment is a cozy, self-designed artist’s lair. His basement also serves as The Duo’s veritable Bat Cave, its rehearsal laboratory and subterranean getaway.

Around the corner from his stove, an organ and drum kit sit facing each other, the band’s classic stage setup. In contrast to Russo’s Fonzie, Benevento exudes Richie Cunningham’s boyish enthusiasm. He sits back, grins, and flips the front of his shaggy bowl cut when he’s excited about free jazz, quirky keyboards and, especially, the evolution of his band. “That summer, I got us a gig at High Sierra, so we booked a tour around that. As soon as we got in the car, Joe was like, ‘Okay, where is your CD book?’ He flipped through the entire thing without stopping ‘cause it was all Coltrane and Bill Evans. Joe loved jazz too, but was definitely a rocker. Besides a Beatles CD, the only other thing I had was OK Computer, so we popped that in.” Slowly those sounds crept into the group’s set.

“We didn’t know shit about each other,” says Russo. “It was like a first date and we didn’t have MySpace to say things like, ‘Are you really 99 years old?’ or ‘Are you really a swinger?’ But we had this unspoken connection because we were classmates.”
The Duo returned from its first tour energized and soon graduated from The Tap Bar to more prestigious music dives. In 2003, the group released a live CD, Darts. Gigs became more frequent and focused, often piggybacking on the pair’s other projects. When Russo toured with it live, so now we ‘fuck her gently.’” Russo and Benevento spent 2005 touring both by themselves and with Gordon, picking up a New Groove of the Year Jammy along the way (Russo is the only artist to hold two trophies in the category). They performed at Bonnaroo, became “big in Japan” and began packing larger clubs like the Bowery Ballroom.

The group also caught the ear of an eager Trey Anastasio, who eventually brought The Duo and Gordon into the studio to record a handful of tracks for his recent album, Bar 17. “I was working in Brooklyn and Mike [Gordon] kept telling me how great it was playing with them,” Anastasio says. “So I asked them to record just one song but there was so much chemistry, we ended up recording almost a whole album of songs, four of which are on Bar 17. It was fairly complicated, but because of Joe and Marco, it turned out so well. We even ended up writing one song together, ‘Dragonfly.’ After meeting Joe that night, we started hanging out and he came over and recorded on some other tracks.”

Anastasio also formed a new band, featuring The Duo, Gordon and himself. Without an official name, the quartet hit the road in June with Phil Lesh and Friends, playing mostly material from Anastasio’s solo career (though The Duo brought “Play Pause Stop,” “Becky” and “Something for Rockets” to the repertoire). “Going from playing a Moroccan restaurant to an amphitheater in five years is crazy,” says Russo. “But there was never any pressure because The Duo wasn’t supposed to be a real band. It allowed it to develop naturally.”

Russo and Benevento agree that rolling with Anastasio’s camp helped make their operation more professional. As a teenager, Benevento used to push bootleg T-shirts on Phish tour. When he tried to sell his new line of designer Tees in the lot, he got busted. “I kept saying, ‘Wait, I’m playing here tonight!’ but they didn’t believe me.”

“I’d go on PT [ message boards] and there’d be all these threads about how I hated playing with Trey because some kid saw me drunk backstage,” Russo continues. “I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ So we got hammered and made up fake screen names and started posting shit, but [Marc] Brownstein busted me!”
A few weeks into their run with Gordon and Anastasio, The Duo released its second proper studio album, Play Pause Stop. Unlike Best Reason, Play Pause Stop was largely written in an L.A. recording space and features no “special guests.” “[Best Reason] was half jazz and half rock,” Russo says. “We were sort of transitioning at that time, while this is more of a rock album. It adds weight when you ask skilled players to play simple music.”

The Duo supported the album at almost every music festival under the sun (from Camp Bisco to Fuji Rock, Lollapalooza to Austin City Limits) and Russo celebrated by drinking enough Maker’s Mark to dehydrate a small country (he is currently on the wagon). “We actually talked about changing our name before Play Pause Stop came out,” Russo says. “But I guess I’m confined to being in bands with shitty names for all eternity.”

Determined not to be pigeonholed as a Phish side dish, The Duo spent the remainder of 2006 touring with art freaks Apollo Sunshine and sharing the stage with indie-pop icons like The Shins. In many ways, Russo and Benevento are the linchpin holding together a new, post jam scene, featuring urban live bands like The Slip, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (JFJO), Sam Champion, Apollo Sunshine, RANA and Tom Hamilton’s American Babies.

“Usually you have to go through some bullshit and shit-talking before you can be friends. But, for Marco and I, it was like, I’ve known you before, asshole – we’re going to be best friends,” JFJO’s Brian Haas says. “From the very beginning, we totally had each other’s backs.”

The bands often share rehearsal space, club bills and even projects. “[Before The Duo took off] I was trying to get Russo to join Jacob Fred,” Haas continues. “Everything happens for a reason and if Russo had joined Jacob Fred, I would be drinking way too much whiskey right now.”

Back home in September 2006 Russo and Benevento are catching up after a few days apart. Russo mentions that he saw an ex girlfriend at a recent show, and Benevento is stoked that he got out of paying a parking ticket incurred at a recent gig. While The Duo has recently rubbed elbows with jam-rock rock royalty, Russo and Benevento are still, first and foremost, working musicians, struggling to make their mark on the live music scene. They talk like any pair of old friends, inserting jokes into each other’s sentences. “I saw Phish at the Garden State Arts Center 11 years ago… my parents dropped me off and would say ‘Don’t smoke what those guys are selling,’” Benevento says. “To be playing there with Trey and Mike is amazing. But what made it even more amazing is that it felt natural.”

“And now we’re back in our shitty little van,” Russo chimes in. “I can see The Duo just progressing, getting larger,” Russo says. “Like, Joe could have three drum sets and I could have six keyboards and an upright bass,” Benevento quips.
“I think what I learned the most from being on tour with Trey is that we can’t be overly concerned with what our fans think,” Benevento says. “He is super successful because he keeps his listeners on their toes and that’s great, but, we have to follow what we truly believe in to create our music. Even if that means playing a ballad or this weird mix of jazz and rock. Nobody wants to hear you not being yourself.”
After we finish chatting, Russo returns home to decompress after a late night performance at CBGB, while Benevento slips inside his apartment to prepare for a jazz gig at 55 Bar. On his way in, the keyboardist passes his refrigerator, which houses a collage of pictures drawn from The Duo’s two decade journey from suburban Franklin Lakes, NJ, to the heart of instrumental indie-rock. His mind begins to drift, recalling one particular image taken his final day at Berklee. “When I got my diploma, the people who handed it to me were actually David Bowie and Wayne Shorter,” Benevento says. “I always loved what a cool mix of worlds that could be.”

If Joe Russo plays in American Babies with Brothers Past’s Tom Hamilton and BP is the new Lake Trout and Lake Trout sounds a lot like Radiohead and Radiohead has claimed Phish’s throne and Phish has been replaced by GRAB (Gordon-Russo-Anastasio-Benevento) and G.R.A.B. features Joe and Marco, then The Duo is not only one of the best underground bands out there, but also the new Kevin Bacon. Just don’t tell Marco that Joe and Tommy are the new Brad and Jen.
Broke musicians in New York, The Duo often collaborated with members of Dub Trio, who spent the summer opening for Gnarls Barkley.
Throughout 2003, Marco Benevento played a series of gigs at Tribeca Rock Club with Rashawn Ross, who toured as a member of DMB in 2006.
Benevento and Russo often play Led Zeppelin covers as Bustle in Your Hedgegrow with Scott Metzger and WEEN’s Dave Dreiwitz.
Play Pause Stop was produced by onetime Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain.
The Duo have jammed with all four members of Phish, including Page McConnell, who played keyboards on Tenacious D’s self-titled breakthrough.
Joe Russo has collaborated with (and even more frequently text messages with) Umphrey’s McGee, which invited Wilco’s Glenn Kotche onstage last year.
On June 25, 2005, The Duo were joined onstage at Ram’s Head by Gov’t Mule bassist Andy Hess, who recorded on Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time CD.
The Duo spent the summer on the road with Phil Lesh, whose “friends” included longtime Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell.
On May 8, 2006, Joe Russo subbed for King of France’s Michael Azerrad, who wrote the definitive book on Nirvana.
On July 17, 2004, The Duo participated in a funk power jam at Gathering of the Vibes, featuring Fuzz, who played guitar with Talking Heads rhytmn section Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth of Tom Tom Club.