Keyboardist Marco Benevento has been on quite a roll over the past decade. He first came to fame as half of the Benevento/Russo Duo with drummer Joe Russo, with the pair earning acclaim for their improvisational jams that produced a sonic storm that felt like way more than the sum of merely two musicians. Benevento’s multi-dimensional sound was and remains a key factor, mixing analog keys and acoustic piano with psychedelic synths in diverse fashion.
The duo caught the attention of Phish bassist Mike Gordon, who joined the pair for a number of gigs as a trio that raised their profile further. Benevento and Russo soon found themselves tapped to join Gordon and guitarist Trey Anastasio for a summer 2006 tour that showed a formidable quartet in dynamic action. Russo went on to join Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in Furthur from 2009-13, further upping the duo’s jamrock cred because there simply is no higher rung on the jamrock ladder than playing with members of the Grateful Dead and Phish.
It’s an all in the family kind of scene which saw Benevento and Russo unite again in 2014 in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD), a progressive Grateful Dead cover band that Russo launched after the dissolution of Furthur. But Benevento has also been hard at work furthering his own musical vision, touring widely with his own trio and with 2014’s Swift LP where he added lead vocals to his repertoire.
The current tour continues the trio format, with bassist Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) and drummer Andy Borger (Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco, Norah Jones). The group rolled into Ocean Beach on a Thursday night, where Chicago jamrockers Umphrey’s McGee were also playing at the House of Blues downtown. But the San Diego House of Blues is not a fan-friendly venue and Winston’s Beach Club is, so it was no surprise that fans filled the room for Benevento. The combo of Benevento’s laid back vibes and feel-good grooves is tailor made for a neighborhood like Ocean Beach, so there was little doubt that this would be one of the club’s best shows of the year.
It didn’t take long for the jams to start flowing, with Benevento leading the way with shimmery keyboards to conjure a melodic flow that had the room getting down early on. “Coyote Hearing” from the new album added to the set’s building energy level with a pulsing beat as the trio locked into a collective groove that soared through several peaks. Benevento took a moment to mention being glad to be in “San Diago”, earning additional points for referencing the legendary Ron Burgundy, always popular in these parts. “The Real Morning Party” kicked the party into full overdrive, a perennial crowd pleaser that had Winston’s getting down on the good foot with its hummable melody, psychedelic synths and driving groove. The first set concluded with another high-energy flowing jam where Benevento’s dynamic playing recalled that of Phish’s Page McConnell on a classic “Bathtub Gin” type of hose jam, much to the delight of all.
There was only a brief set break before the band returned to kick the dance party back into high gear. A staple cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats” (which Benevento recorded on 2009’s Me Not Me) was another crowdpleaser with more pulsing electro synths rippling through time and space in dazzling fashion. A cover of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” really pushed the set over the top, with Benevento’s bright sonic arrangement highlighting the timeless majestic grandeur of the seminal psychedelic classic. Benevento pulled a surprising rabbit out of his musical hat though by seguing into Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets”, which caught some off guard with the extreme shift in vibes. But most of the crowd ate it up, singing along at high volume with Benevento’s endearing falsetto. Redemption was won though as the trio segued back into “Fearless” for further jamming and a triumphant conclusion.
Benevento is at an interesting juncture in his career in 2015. He’s got a great gig jamming the Dead tunes with Russo, music that will only continue to grow in demand after the remaining original members of the Grateful Dead play their final shows together for the band’s 50th anniversary at Chicago’s Soldier Field this July. But he’s also continuing to develop a compelling sonic vision with his original music. He’s also not afraid to speak his voice for a cause, such as contributing the track “Freakin Frak” with Dreiwitz to the Buy This Fracking Album benefit compilation from Movement Music Records. The album is a project to raise awareness and funds for the growing movement against the foul environmental crimes of the fracking industry, and Mother Earth surely needs all the help she can get here in 2015’s era of global climate change.
All of this makes Benevento a true 21st century man, an artist able to generate a diverse array of musical output, which is probably for the best since he’s clearly a devoted music junky that likes to stay busy. Fans get to see him in at least two bands instead of just one, which is what Californians like to call winning.