“Idefinitely come from a lot of different places,” understates keyboardist/songwriter and now vocalist Marco Benevento. The New Jersey native, onetime Brooklynite and current resident of Woodstock, New York, is celebrating the release of his latest album, Woodstock Sessions, on his and manager Kevin Calabro’s Royal Potato Family label.
Leading his trio—which includes bassist Karina Rykman and drummer Andy Borger—Benevento closes out the Bayou Boogaloo on Sunday.
Benevento, who attended Berklee College of Music, gained recognition as a member of the Benevento/Russo Duo. He was behind the organ with drummer Joe Russo at the trap set performing what has been described as a combination of punk, rock and experimental jazz. That they played at the progressively inclined Knitting Factory tells a bit about their music’s direction.
“I thought I was gonna be more of a jazzer,” Benevento acknowledges. “In the early 2000s, I was very much into the [jazz pianist] Brad Mehldau Trio sound.”
In New Orleans and perhaps elsewhere, Benevento remains best known as a member of Garage A Trois, a funk, punk rock, jazz and electronically enhanced band that boasts New Orleanians drummer Stanton Moore and vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon plus saxophonist Skerik. Benevento met Moore when, in 2003, his organ/drum group came down to play its first gigs in the Crescent City, performing at One Eyed Jacks, Tipitina’s and several other small clubs. He got to sit in with Galactic and became close to the drummer and other members of the band.
As a teenager, Benevento was into classic rock ’n’ roll and dance music, though it was during his high school years that he first discovered the Meters. “When I heard the Meters, something clicked,” he says. “My parents actually got me a Hammond organ for my 17th birthday and I was just buggin’ out about the Meters and this funk and groove music.”
“The door opened,” the keyboardist remembers as he realized that music “doesn’t have to be rock, it doesn’t have to jazz, it could be funky like James Brown and the Meters or even something in between. [Trumpeter Miles Davis’ revolutionary] Bitches Brew was the starting point to the jam band and Zappa-ish stuff.”
Benevento also connected musically to New Orleans piano greats James Booker and Dr. John. “I love James Booker and I’ve learned a lot from listening to his music,” says Benevento. For the last four years, he’s teamed with drummer Johnny Vidacovich and bassist James Singleton for a tribute to Booker at the Maple Leaf on the Monday night between the Jazz Fest weekends.
Benevento has also been all over the place in the keyboard realm. He began playing piano at age seven and then dug into the Hammond. Distinctively, he was known to play an acoustic piano with pickups rather than utilizing the more conventional Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer.
“I tour with a real piano—hammer hitting strings, but it doesn’t have 88 keys, it’s got 64 keys,” he explains. “They’re called train car pianos that were made in the 1920s.”
A while back, a friend handed him a modified toy piano equipped with knobs and lights and said, “Play this thing.” Benevento, the founder and recording engineer for the Fred Short Recording Studio, was hooked on what is now known as a type of circuit bending. “Basically, as a musician you’re always searching for different sorts of sounds,” he explains. “I have toured with it but the problem with them is that they’re made of plastic and they need batteries. So now I sample the sounds and play them through my laptop.”
As heard on Woodstock Sessions, Benevento’s latest twist is that he’s now singing. “I’m writing simpler songs and using Casio drum machines and synthesizers that are very reminiscent of the dance scene of the ’80s,” he explains. “We’re playing music stemming from all these different places—it can almost confuse people. But when you go to a show you get it. It all makes sense.”
That rings true on listening to tunes from the album like “Dropkick,” which is both fun and funky, and “Heavy Metal Floating Upstream,” which folks into Benevento’s keyboard work will find easy to relate to and jammers should enjoy too.
Inspired by other artists, the keyboardist has also revved up his look. “I had zero style,” he admits. “I watched Mick Jagger talking about live performances and he said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to play the part.’”
“So about five years ago, I was walking to my gig in Asbury Park, New Jersey, which is a very flamboyant town in its own right, and I went by this store and there was this suit—a white and black striped suit—like a Beetlejuice-type suit. And I was like, ‘That suit looks amazing.’ I kept walking and I said, ‘Dude, you should go back and buy it.’”
Benevento promises that lights will be shining at his action-packed debut at the Bayou Boogaloo. “Yes,” he declares, “it’s a dance party!”