Photo © Nicholas Tolson
I haven’t read the book but thanks to Oprah Winfrey I’ve been led to believe that sportswriter Mitch Albom used to spend Tuesdays with his ailing mentor Morrie. This past January in New York, Sullivan Hall featured a more uplifting series of get togethers that we liked to call “Thursdays With Marco.” Over the course of his mostly improvised weekly shows, five in total, keyboard maven Marco Benevento shared the stage with the likes of Steve Bernstein, Calvin Weston, Skerik, Billy Martin, Joe Russo, Mark Friedman, Brad Barr, Bobby Previte and Stanton Moore. This past Thursday, the final show of the Sullivan Hall residency doubled as record release celebration for Benevento’s upcoming solo album, Invisible Baby. For the occasion, Benevento assembled a part of the core group that assisted him on his recent effort: bassist Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and drummer Andrew Barr of The Slip.
The Sullivan Hall residency effectively recaptured the magic of Benevento’s November 2006 series of shows at the now-defunct Tonic. Although few were aware at the time, Benevento’s Tonic residency turned out to be one of the last great moments in the club’s storied history and the resulting Live At Tonic serves as a fine memorial to the venue’s last days. Benevento patterned his Sullivan Hall shows after his Tonic ones: unrehearsed sets of predominantly improvised music. Where some of the earlier shows were marked by wildly experimental jamming and jazzy and psychedelic explorations, last Thursday’s show had its greatest focus on playing certain songs. Seeing as it was a record release party, it might not have been a bad idea to, you know, play songs from the record.
After a solo opening set from Brad Barr, Benevento, Mathis and Andrew Barr quickly took to the stage. Playing at a grand piano with a synthesizer keyboard resting above, Benevento kept the hour long first set centered on Invisible Baby. With all due respect to Matt Chamberlain, Benevento couldn’t have put together a better rhythm section to reproduce the album’s songs. Mathis plays bass on the new album and Barr drums on nearly half of the tracks. As such, they were pretty familiar with the music. The three explored a number of Invisible Baby’s melodies but didn’t stretch them too far out or move them in wildly different directions. In the middle of the set, the trio detoured into an improvisational medley that touched upon Deerhoof and My Morning Jacket. At the close of the song, Benevento explained what they had just played so that the setlist arrows could be marked accordingly.
If you hadn’t heard “The Real Morning Song” before arriving that night, you were going to leave with the tune’s marriage of Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music” and The Duo’s “Soba” embedded in your brain. After playing it in the first set, during which Benevento passed out various bells and percussion clackers to let the audience join in the fun, he kept going back to it as if he were getting extra royalties from that one song alone. He screened a homemade video for the track in between sets, played it again during the second set and even segued into again once Brad Barr had joined the festivities.
After an interminably long set break, one which thinned the crowd considerably, Benevento, Mathis and Barr rewarded everyone who stuck around. Opening with Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” Benevento produced the song’s cascading rolls on the grand piano. With Mathis and Barr pushing the song into a more intense direction, they took the relatively pacific tune into a wild jam that settled into a realm normally occupied by the Radiohead at their headiest and Syd Barrett at his most unsettling. In contrast to the daring, acid-fueled jams, Benevento broke out “Three Question Marks,” one of The Duo’s more avant-garde jazz pieces that fell right into Mathis’ wheelhouse. They also played an easy version of the Curtis Mayfield tinged “Mephisto” and a dreamy rendition of Benevento’s “You Must Be a Lion.”
Once Brad Barr plugged in his guitar, they all started to improvise a bit more. Benevento called the shots out with the song but once it began, it moved according to the collective will. They launched into Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” which has always been a highlight of any Marco show, and never really slowed down. The wild jams that came at the end drifted into “Gimme Some Lovin’,” segued into yet another version of “The Real Morning Song,” with Benevento playing the synthesized riff on his piano before passing it off to Barr to play on his guitar and finally finished with a patient, pulsing version of The Zombies “She’s Not There” that had the same feel as the Malcolm McLaren version from Kill Bill II. In a fitting close to the residency, ¼ of Tea Leaf Green, ½ of the Benevento Russo Duo and 2/3 of The Slip jammed into the wee hours of the morning (on a work night nonetheless). Much like the audience, Benevento didn’t seem to want the night or the residency to end, even after a two hour second set.
Over the course of the five shows, a spirit of camaraderie seemed to evolve amongst the healthy number of fans who made Sullivan Hall their Thursday night home. Playing amongst friends, and on this night family as well, seemed to inspire Benevento and for the closing night, he saved his best for last. Even before Benevento, Mathis and the two Barr brothers wound down for the night, many who had been present for every note in January were proclaiming the final set the best of the run.
The excitement over the finale also raised one very pertinent question: when and where will Benevento Residency III be taking place?
Editors note: this post was written by Dave Schultz, a long-time writer for Earvolution.com. Thankfully he captured this through a review, and thankfully nyctaper was there to record the show and post the FLAC files for download at his site. Gotta love the internets, folks.