If you have ever been to a show during Jazz Fest that didn’t happen on the Fairgrounds, there’s a good chance your ears were treated to the musical eccentricities of Marco Benevento. Benevento is currently on an extensive fall tour, bringing his infectious piano driven rock cross country. He checked in with us from his new home “out in the country” in Woodstock, NY between shows to talk about his fondness for New Orleans, the beauty of the after party, and updates on some of his many side projects.
Every year during Jazz Fest in New Orleans, you seem to play more shows than all the Neville Brothers put together. What is it about New Orleans that makes you set up shop for two weeks every year during Jazz Fest?
The first time I went to Jazz Fest was in 2000 just for fun and I totally fell in love with it. I wound up sitting in at the old Howlin Wolf with [DJ] Logic and some other folks. I went back in 2003 with Joe Russo to play with the Duo, and we met up with Galactic, who we had been touring with here and there. Jeff Raines handed me a James Booker CD. At the time I had never heard of James Booker and he was like “Aw, man, you are gonna flip out on this stuff.”
Since 2003 I’ve been listening to Booker periodically and really getting into that whole thing and it’s grown naturally over the years. I also joined Garage A Trois, which is sort of a New Orleans band with Stanton Moore. Even though it’s kind of hard rock, playing with Stanton definitely connects you to New Orleans.
When did you first start listening to music from New Orleans?
I listened to The Meters a lot when I was a kid in high school; Look-Ka Py Py was one of my favorite records and still is. I really liked the groove element of the Meters, the way four people can play together to create this interlocking sort of funk that I had never heard before. So playing Hammond organ and listening to The Meters first got me into that New Orleans tradition.
How did you start playing with all the New Orleans legends who regularly share the stage with you?
It really evolved naturally and organically over the past 10 years through doing tours with Stanton [Moore], Robert Walter, Skerik, and Mike Dillon, as well as doing Jam Cruise and sitting in with George Porter and Anders Osborne.
Now during Jazz Fest I’m playing WWOZ Piano Night, Thursday night slots at the Maple Leaf with George [Porter]and Jonny [Vidacovich], and playing with Garage a Trois every Wednesday night at the Megalomaniacs Ball.
It’s amazing how some of those guys really embrace you, and shows the New Orleans spirit of camaraderie and welcoming to outsiders. What has your experience been playing alongside these musical legendary guys?
They want you to be you; they want you to be yourself and bring whatever that is to the table. It’s great when you finally get good looks from them. You’re playing with George Porter and he’s on that wavelength and he’s in it with you. It’s kind of cool to be in that environment. If you can play and you know the songs and the tradition, they’ll let you come in and jam out.
What’s your best memory in NOLA?
Oh man, there’s been so many of them. I like having the opportunity now to play my own music with my own band and do some of my own show. I’ve been liking the shows that my band has been able to pull off. We played at Le Petit Theatre about a year ago, and that was a really fun gig. And the Megalomaniacs Ball (the Garage A Trois festival that we’ve been throwing at the Howlin Wolf) is always great.
Playing the WWOZ piano night for the first time was also really fun. I liked being able to do my own stuff and represent New York jazz piano at the Fest.
I’ve also been doing some James Booker gigs where we play about 20 James Booker tunes with Jonny Vidacovich and James Singleton at the Maple Leaf. I get a chance to sing and play that style of music, which I find to be really challenging but also rewarding.
We did Mardi Gras in Brooklyn last year and did James Booker. Booker is not an easy guy to just learn the stuff and get it ready for the gig; it’s something you really need to know and learn.
It was cool to see the reaction on people’s faces at the Maple Leaf when you followed the New Orleans Suspects last year during Jazz Fest. I’ve never heard such diverse sounds come from the stage at the Leaf before. How is the reaction when people first hear your music during Jazz Fest?
I got a lot of compliments for that show because a lot of people in NOLA for Jazz Fest are so over saturated with the traditional New Orleans music, and it’s a nice breath of fresh air to hear something different and more experimental. The music that we play is easy to get. It’s very melodic, easy to follow, very positive and upbeat, and has that New Orleans attitude in that regard, but it’s not swinging or funky. Some people may be very turned off by that, but the majority of folks like it. We’re still growing as a band and there’s a lot of people that still haven’t heard us so we have a lot more growth and progress to make. For now the initial response has been great.
Your band has been known to play until the sun comes up for certain gigs, such as this past summer at the Equifunk festival in Pennsylvania. A lot of artists don’t really get the opportunity to play an all-night show. How do you keep people dancing and grooving when they’re thinking about calling it a night?
I love the after party. It’s nice to be surrounded by people and be sitting down at the piano and just be in that spot where you want to play songs that everybody can sing and everybody might know. I love the image of a guy sitting down at a piano with 20 or 30 (or at Equifunk 200) people surrounding the piano and sort of calling out songs and playing percussion, with random singers from the audience stepping up and singing some songs.
I love the camaraderie and the feeling of getting people all together to sing and find a common ground. That might be a song from the New Orleans songbook, a Motown song, a Pink Floyd song, maybe even an original song. I mean that’s how I was raised. My uncle played guitar, my dad liked to sing, everyone can sing in my family and we like to have a good time. We like to eat good food and drink wine and hang out and before you know it someone’s playing an instrument and most likely people are singing and that’s just a nice impromptu way to appreciate music.
It’s also a challenge as a piano player to just go, “Alright, you may have heard this song on the radio 500 times and you’ve never played it. Try to play it now for people and you’ll probably figure it out.” Getting that campfire songbook in your head where you can play songs for hours that people will recognize is a goal for a lot of musicians, especially piano players because you’re able to take care of all the parts: the rhythm, the bass, the chords, the melody. You can really supply entertainment through the evening and I do love that part of music.
Have you been working on any new material?
Our record, Tigerface, came out a year ago, so we’re still playing a lot of songs off that one as well as playing a lot of songs from the earlier records. We have about three or four new songs that have been thrown into the mix. I’ve written a bunch of songs that haven’t been tossed into the live situation quite yet, but I’m constantly writing new music and working on new material. I’m working on a new album right now, the follow-up to Tigerface. We’re really focusing on playing a lot of songs off Tigerface since a lot of people still haven’t heard that record yet, but the new songs are absolutely fun because they’re very unique and they don’t sound like any other songs that have been on any other record.
Your current band consists of Dave Dreiwitz and Andy Borger, who have really filled out these songs live, taking what you did in the studio and making them a lot more energetic and danceable. Will you be recording with this band when you return to the studio?
Oh, yeah. The new record is all them and it’s been a blast. We definitely have fun, we landed at a common ground where it feels like a band when I play with them. For a while I was touring with Matt Chamberlain, Andrew Barr, and Reed Mathis. Living in New York, it was difficult to get those guys to every gig since they’re spread across L.A., San Francisco, and Montreal, so it was sort of time for me to figure out how I was gonna get my New York band together because it’s just easier to tour like that. Dave and Andy became more and more free as the years went on, while Matt, Andrew, and Reed became busy and it was a hassle to get them to gigs. Actually it wasn’t so hard, but more of what I was used to. It made me think about a pretty important point which is hopefully you would be able to play your music with anybody. I felt like I needed Matt, Andrew, and Reed, and at that time I did.
But as things grew and the songs progressed and the music sort of found its own shape, I felt like I shouldn’t worry about the players and focus on the music. You hope to write music that anybody could play. The show should be about the songs and not the musicianship. The musicianship should definitely be there, but it shouldn’t just be individualized parts like a certain thing has to be done by a certain player to make the song work. What the band is doing now is great and ultimately helped me with my process of thinking about focusing on the music and not just the playing.
One of your many projects, Bustle in Your Hedgerow, recently broke from tradition and played a show that wasn’t exclusively Led Zeppelin covers. Any plans to continue that tradition, or go back to strictly playing Zeppelin?
That was really fun, just trying to find variety. We played three nights at Brooklyn Bowl and so we thought it would be cool to do “Bustle Plays Other Shit” for the last night. Everybody threw a bunch of tunes into the mix and then Joe [Russo] suggested we do Paranoid (the entire record) and we thought that was a great idea ‘cause Sabbath is very much riff rock like Zeppelin. I bet Bustle in Your Hedgerow would do another night where we do other stuff, but playing Zeppelin and doing all those tunes and knowing all those songs is a really fun outlet. I go way back with Joe, Scott, and Dave, so it’s these New York friends who have been playing together for a long time and luckily we’ve been able to do some really good gigs and play for a lot of people, even though it’s essentially a cover band. There’s something that we bring to the table that people like and we like, so it’s fun.
Another project, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, has only played one show, but just announced a gig at The Capitol Theatre this December. Any plans to take that group on the road or is that more of a one off kind of thing?
That’s Joe Russo’s band and his vision. It’s very young, we’ve only done one gig, and it’s very much the beginning phases of that whole thing. Not to mention Joe’s already doing the Dead stuff with Furthur, but he’s thinking about how to sort of carry the torch and keep the Dead music alive by playing with some younger people. I would imagine that maybe as the life of Furthur begins to end, that Joe might want to try to do this in some other places. There’s no telling really what might happen with this, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun and the music is timeless and it’s much appreciated by a lot of people. Just like Bustle, this thing will probably take off too because of the demand of people wanting to hear us do that sort of thing.
Marco Benevento will appear at 11:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, at Chelsea’s, 2857 Perkins, Road, Baton Rouge; and Saturday, Sept. 28, at 11 p.m. (doors open at 10) at the Blue Nile, 532 Frenchmen, New Orleans.
Shane Coleman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie and Live Music Blog, a content partner of NolaVie.