Two is the loveliest number
October 6, 2005
When Marco Benevento and Joe Russo were kids, growing up together in the northern New Jersey town of Franklin Lakes, their common pursuit was bands: jazz bands, garage bands, chorus bands, the bands for school plays. The chemistry between the two was instant, both in musical tastes and rebellious personalities.”It was, ‘Oh, you play drums and you’re into Led Zeppelin and Rush,'” said keyboardist Benevento of his introduction to Russo. “We were both just learning to play our instruments. And we were both kind of punks – in detention, staying after in homeroom with a teacher who hated us. So we got along just fine.”It’s a good thing the two get along so famously. Over the decade since they left Franklin Lakes High School, Benevento and Russo have seen the band concept drop away; for four years, the two have been touring and recording as the Benevento/Russo Duo, a “band” of two.The Duo didn’t evolve out of an idea to see how much sound – and the Benevento/Russo Duo makes quite a racket – could be coaxed out of two guys, each playing essentially one instrument. “There was never a time when Joe and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s start a duo,'” said Benevento who, like his partner, is 28. “It wasn’t a concept we thought about.”What they were thinking was that a keyboard-and-drum duo was an ideal foundation for the gig that Russo scored at the Knitting Factory, the hub of Manhattan’s downtown music scene. Russo was given a steady Thursday night gig, and $100 to dole out as he saw fit.”Joe said, ‘Why don’t you just bring the organ down, and we can make $50 each, instead of splitting the $100 four ways,'” said Benevento. “So it was necessity.”But the two were far too artistic-minded to make the gig solely about money. Benevento had attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music before moving to Brooklyn, where he took private lessons from masters like pianist Brad Mehldau. Russo had gone a different educational route, touring with the Colorado-based seven-piece band Fat Mama, which dabbled in everything from hard rock to free jazz. At the Knitting Factory, the twosome worked on establishing a strong avenue of two-way communication.”It’s an ideal setting for a weekly gig in New York,” said Benevento, while driving from Santa Cruz to Sacramento. “You get a lot of people sitting in, and there’s lot of room to be communicative. And the big thing was, we could learn to play with each other, learn our personalities right on stage.”
Thursday nights became a scene, but not a mob scene. While Benevento and Russo had friends sit in frequently, the real excitement came from the core duo.”It started to snowball,” said Benevento. “Four months into the residency, we had tapers coming down, people like Eric Krasno, the guitarist from Soulive, sitting in. It was the hip, downtown thing to do.”Soon enough, the Benevento/Russo Duo had out-of-town gigs. A friend of Benevento’s ran the high-profile High Sierra Music Festival in California, and invited the duo to play there. Benevento laughs – loud – at the thought of packing his Subaru station wagon with his organ and Leslie speaker cabinet, and Russo’s drum kit.Even if there had been room for another band member, Benevento and Russo weren’t hiring. For one, they were enjoying the experiment of being a duo. For another, the novelty of a duo attracted attention. Fellow musicians like Stanton Moore, the drummer from the New Orleans groove band Galactic, and eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, pushed to have the duo open dates for them.”There was the intrigue of, ‘Wow, this is just a duo doing this. How do they pull it off?’ ” said Benevento. “People thought, ‘I’m hearing five or six parts.’ That’s a draw.”Benevento himself was perplexed about what he and Russo were doing, and how they could do it. Someone gave him a videotape of the duo in concert, and Benevento was as bewildered as a fan.”I looked at it and thought, ‘This is weird: two guys on stage, facing each other, playing songs with five or six different parts,'” he said. “It’s not like crazy visuals going on. It’s just two guys playing their instruments.”
There have been, of course, many notable duos in rock history, from Simon & Garfunkel to Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes. But it is the kind of music the Benevento/Russo Duo makes that sets it apart.Unlike virtually any rock duo you can name, neither half of the Benevento/Russo Duo sings; it is entirely an instrumental act. But the two don’t simply create the deepest groove they can and solo like mad within it. On this year’s “Best Reason to Buy the Sun,” their first album for a label (Ropeadope), the music is nearly as melodic as it is jamming. Benevento likens tunes such as “Welcome Red” and “Sunny’s Song” to rock songs with the lyrics and vocals missing. He finds the biggest influences are contemporary rock bands – Radiohead, Wilco, the Arcade Fire, the Shinns.”That’s what we’ve been getting into lately, the indie rock vibe,” said Benevento. “And it’s funny, because we listen to these bands with lyrics and singing – and we don’t have any of that. We hardly ever listen to instrumental music.”It has been a progression to the more melodic ideas of “Best Reason to Buy the Sun.” Benevento grew up with a huge range of influences, from pop-rocker pianists Billy Joel and Elton John to hard rock bands AC/DC and Led Zeppelin to jazz players like Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson. But when he and Russo began playing as a duo, the easiest thing to do was groove and jam.”When we first started playing, there was lots of room for improvisation,” he said. “Which almost always meant less melody. Now, when we write, we’re thinking of melody over chord changes, not just improvising. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but it’s more of a challenge to make a nice melody. That’s what makes the song. Lately, we’ve been writing a lot, trying to compose the perfect instrumental rock song.”The duo has also been progressing in its techniques and instruments. Benevento’s latest passion is something called circuit-bending, a method of taking electronic toys and gadgets and mutating them into sound effects. Benevento has added the circuit-bending toys to his collection of a Hammond organ, Wurlitzer piano, and “a lot of pedals.”Benevento and Russo are not averse to inviting other members to the party. On “Best Reason to Buy the Sun,” they welcomed contributions from saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon of Garage á Trois, guitarist Smokey Hormel, and percussionist Joey Waronker, who also produced the album. On stage, they are often joined by members of progressive jazz bands like the Slip and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. The duo has two side projects: a trio that features former Phish bassist Mike Gordon, which has performed 10 times or so over the last year, and Bustle in Your Hedgerow, an all-Zeppelin, all-instrumental quartet.Still, musicians shouldn’t be sending their résumés in. Benevento and Russo are happy with their cozy duo, and expect to be for some time to come.
“We’ve thought about it,” said Benevento of the possibility of adding a piece to the group. “But there’s something we love, sharing this mind reading. We’ve got a good thing going. We’re not going to expand anytime soon. We’re looking to expand our thing first.”There’s a lot of room to go. I have a feeling we’ll be a duo forever.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com