words & photos by Lou Montesano

Keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo have known each other since their high school days in New Jersey. They started performing together professionally at New York’s Knitting Factory in 2001 and attracted attention for their individual talents as well as their shows as a duo. Both musicians also pursued other projects, crossing paths with members of established jambands such as Phish along with emerging talent who would later become bandmates. The Duo, however, remained something special until outside demands forced them to take a break from their two-man gigs. Russo joined Furthur, supporting Phil Lesh and Bob Weir’s attempt to reunite until old issues, creative as well as lifestyle, resurfaced, culminating in Bob Weir’s onstage collapse.

Furthur shined a light on Russo’s powerhouse drumming. His massive sound is reminiscent of the likes of John Bonham (one of Benevento and Russo’s many other projects is the Zeppelin tribute band Bustle In Your Hedgerow), but with far more range and nuance. Marco, meanwhile, was winning acclaim for his energetic blend of rock, jazz and classical styles as well as the electronic effects he creates on an otherwise old-fashioned upright piano.

When it was announced late last year that the Duo would reunite for the 2017 Freaks Ball -- which happened February 25 at Brooklyn Bowl -- tickets sold out within the hour. Having begun 17 years ago as a New York-based email list of like-minded music fans, the Freaks Ball has helped launch the careers of Robert Randolph, American Babies and many others. The Freaks Ball also gave birth to Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, now simply JRAD, which has become one of the most popular among the many Grateful Dead-related acts.

Opening this year’s Freaks Ball was fellow JRADer Scott Metzger and his power trio, Wolf!. Metzger clarified more than once that the exclamation point is indeed part of the band’s name, leading to sometimes awkward punctuation in print, but his guitar playing can be worthy of the extra emphasis. Stretching out on simple riffs, Metzger and mates Jon Shaw on bass and Taylor Floreth on drums do more with less than just about any band around to create their own brand of updated surf rock.

Benevento and Russo are similarly minimalist in terms of personnel but employ an impressive array of equipment to produce their wall of sound. As Russo raised his big sticks to kick things off, fans back in the bar area could feel the energy. Surrounded by drums of every shape and size, a small electric keyboard and an electric guitar, Russo pounded and finessed the skins, tickled keys and strummed his guitar as if it were a percussion instrument. Marco’s keyboards were equally varied with straightforward acoustic sounds and electronic overlays, his beaming smile driving his musical partner and the crowd to increasing levels of intensity.

With so much improvisation and few vocals to distinguish individual songs, a Benevento-Russo show is more about the overall experience than a specific set list. The music is seamless — hard-driving one moment, playful the next — and the musicianship is masterful. It’s all about letting go and having a good time wherever the music leads.

Marco Benevento and Wolf! also played Brooklyn Bowl together earlier on in February (pics). Marco Benevento, Joe Russo, Scott Metzger and the entire JRAD lineup will be back at Brooklyn Bowl for six shows (March 9-11 and 16-18). In between, Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band will perform two nights (March 12-13). Phil & TFB also played the venue in February (pics).

Joe Russo and Jon Shaw will both be in Craig Finn's backing band at his album release show.


photos by Lou Montesano

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