There’s something special about New York City at the end of December, when anticipation builds to close out one year and usher in another. While the ball drop in Times Square is the longest storied tradition, the Big Apple has also become a New Year’s mecca for music fans. Much of this action is due to Phish, the jamrock kings from Vermont who are closing out 2012 with their third consecutive New Year’s eve run at Madison Square Garden (following previous runs in 1995, ‘97, ‘98 and 2002).
But the Phish aftershow party has become something of a cottage industry in itself, since the fan base includes a certain segment of party animals who seek to keep the festivities going late into the night. Enter keyboardist Marco Benevento, who has become one of the most reliable scenesters in the jamrock community. The Benevento-Russo Duo played a number of gigs with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, including a memorable December 31, 2004, late night show in New York following Phish’s breakup that year. Benevento and Russo were later tabbed to join Gordon and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio for a summer tour in 2006, where they won the hearts of many more fans.
Benevento has more recently been touring on his own and continuing to make new friends along the way, sitting in with almost everyone at the High Sierra Festival in California this past summer and releasing a new album this past year in Tigerface. He knows what the fans want (heady jams) and how to deliver. His keys also have an instantly identifiable sound, a rare feat to accomplish these days. Benevento and his mates played a most triumphant show at this very same venue a year ago following Phish’s December 29, 2011, performance, so the late night contingent reacted with glee when he scheduled another such post-Phish show for this year’s run.
There’s a lengthy line to get in outside the club early in the midnight hour, but once entry is gained the good times continue to roll. The band has a sound that features a jammy melodic goodness, but it’s not a noodling or droning kind of thing. There’s a jazzy flair but it’s mixed in with the classic rock influence that is so beloved by most in attendance. And since this is the Big Apple, you don’t have to worry about the bar getting shutdown at 2 am. Magic Hat #9s were still being purchased toward the end even as the show passed the three-hour mark, and fans were loving being in the city that never sleeps.
The show features a mix of Benevento’s tried and true material, along with choice cuts from Tigerface, and of course a few classic rock covers. “Atari” is an effervescent sort of tune, with the piano out front leading the way but then backed up by the groovy rhythm section. “Eagle Rock” from the new album has a laid back flow to it, but one that seems to encompass the room in an uplifting kind of cloud. The new “Limbs of a Pine” on the other hand is a sonic blast of up-beat dancetopia. The studio version features a guest vocal from Rubblebucket’s Kal Traver, whom Benevento will play with in Burlington, Vermont, on New Year’s Eve. But even as an instrumental jam, the tune still sparkles. “How It Goes” is a second track with Traver from the new album that also shines here as an instrumental with it’s groovy feel-good vibe.
A deep cut late in the evening that gets everyone fired up occurs when a guest vocalist jumps out on stage and a jazzy jam suddenly morphs into a raucous rendition of the Beatles’ classic, “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road”. The tempo drops down after a couple verses, with Benevento taking an extended piano solo over the groove that keeps everyone in attention. You never know when such a moment will occur with Mr. Benevento, and that’s part of the attraction, that sense of musical adventure.
Another delightful surprise occurs when the tones of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” start to ring out, an immediately recognizable tune to students of classic psychedelia. The band blends it with a harder rocking arrangement than the original, with Benevento’s keys providing a propulsive boost. It’s easily one of the freshest jams on an old classic that these ears have heard all year.
By the time it ends, it’s been over three hours of music. The audience is certainly satisfied, but that doesn’t prevent most folks from hanging out for further socializing. Not to mention Benevento is hanging out at the edge of the stage to sign posters and/or shake hands with anyone interested. Big arena rock shows have their own appeal of course, but it’s also vital to the scene when fans can supplement that with club shows where the musicians onstage are not so far separated from those in the audience.