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Published: 2006/03/16
by Andy Tennille

Used with Marco Benevento

A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous

“I’m going to need to check my bag up here before I go in. Here, hold this.”

Swinging his backpack off his shoulder, Marco Benevento motions for me to grab the stainless steel teakettle he’s got tucked under his arm and then hands me what appears to be a quarter pound of weed wrapped in plastic wrap and stuffed in an old Ziploc freezer bag.

I stare at the bag and then back at Marco as he fishes his wallet out of his pack. In the nearly three years that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve been asked a few favors by guests rides to guitar shops, a slice of pizza on the way to the record store, maybe a beer or three.

This was the first time anyone handed me a copious amount of ganja, or any drug for that matter, and asked me to keep an eye on it for a while.

Handing his backpack to the bag check at Amoeba Music on Haight Street, Benevento grabs the kettle and the plastic bag of kind bud from my hands and nonchalantly passes it over the counter to the bag checker. The clerk glances down at the bag, doubletakes and looks back at us with the same bewildered stare I gave Marco a few seconds before.

“It’s just tea, man,” Benevento says with a laugh sensing the clerk’s confusion. “But it’s some good fuckin’ tea. I just got it the other day, so take good care of it.”

Appearance versus reality. At first glance, The Duo appears to be just another jazz-fusion group. On their debut recording, Darts, released in 2003, drummer Joe Russo’s dynamic, relentless drumming drives a tight beat while keeping it loose enough to allow room for Benevento’s shimmering, soaring organ fills and meandering clav leads, like a distant cousin of Tony Williams’ 1969 groundbreaking album Emergency or Billy Cobham’s Spectrum.

“Obviously Tony Williams, John McLaughlin and the whole jazz-fusion thing was big for us when we started,” Benevento says. “Jimmy Smith and Dr. Lonnie Smith influenced me as they have for anyone who plays the organ, but Larry Young was probably the biggest influence on me. When I heard Unity (Blue Note, 1965), I was so blown away by the fact that he was playing the organ through all these effects, which was pretty new for back then. He had great tone and the way he put together solosit was like rock jazz almost.”

But the band’s true identity reveals itself on the hidden track at the end of Darts, a tremendous cover of Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” augmented by the Slip’s Brad Barr on guitar. Benevento points to the track as the moment when he and Russo began rediscovering their rock roots.

“That tune and covering Zeppelin tunes in general is kinda what started us down the path of what would become Best Reason to Buy the Sun,” Benevento says, referring to the band’s critically acclaimed 2005 release on Ropeadope Records. “We both came from that jazz-rock fusion scene with our previous bands where it was a lot of experimentation and you had to have a lot of chops. We did a lot of that, but over the last few years we decided to write songs and focus on developing melodies. We wanted to get back to our rock roots, which is what we both grew up on. That’s what we tried to do with Best Reason to Buy the Sun, and a lot of new songs that are like that now. It’s almost like a rock tune except it’s missing the singer and words.”

Just like any music fan, Benevento’s tastes and interests change and evolve with what’s going on in popular music, and the biggest story in American rock music over the past year has been the Canadian Invasion. The Canucks have captivated us, and Benevento and Russo are no different.

“There’s a lot of good bands right here in the B section alone We might not even have to leave,” Benevento says as we head into Used Rock. “Well, Arcade Fire is just up there and I listen to their album all the time. The Broken Social Scene has definitely infiltrated The Duo. I like their simplicity. Their albums are produced really well and their songs are nice and interesting to listen to.”

Benevento glances down the aisle and takes off a moment later for the Bon Jovi. When I catch up, the New Jersey native is holding Slippery When Wet and imitating the woo-oh woo-ohs that open “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

“I probably heard them first on the radio growing up in Jersey,” he says admiring the CD. “My parents got a 10-disc CD changer in like 1980, right when it first came out. I don’t really listen to it that much anymore, but Joe and I have a band called Come on Falcon where I play upright bass and he plays guitar and we sing butt-rock songs from the 80s. We cover Livin’ on a Prayer’ a lot. The crowd always loves some Bon Jovi.”

“Because we’ve been listening to all this rock music and expanding our own sound to include other instruments beyond the drums and keyboards, now Joe will also pick up the guitar and I’ll move over to the piano and we’ll do a country song,” Benevento adds. “Or he’ll get his electric guitar and we’ll do a hard rock song. Or we’ll lay down a beat and some samples and do some electronica stuff. And then we’ll go back to where we started and launch into this crazy jazz odyssey jam. Our world has gotten a lot more diverse in the last few years as we’ve kind of explored the possibilities of our music. I wanna eventually get a drum rig where I can play drums and Joe will play guitar or whatever. I think that’s what keeps us interested.”

Marco’s Picks

- Bon Jovi, Slippery When Wet

- Brad Mehldau, Largo

- Larry Young, Unity

- Tony Williams Lifetime, Emergency

- Broken Social Scene, Broken Social Scene

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