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Published: 2004/04/29
by Rob Bressler

MOFRO / Benevento Russo Duo, Ziggy’s, Winston-Salem, NC- 4/21

I can only ponder the reasons why so few would show up for such a great pairing of bands. Still hazy from the previous day's ridiculous holiday? Test week for students in Winston-Salem? Something funny in the water in North Carolina? On Wednesday, April 21st, Ziggy's was host to organ and drums colossus Russo-Benevento Duo and swamp rockers Mofro, and about 25 fans. Despite it being the middle of the week, I imagined with this incredible billing that the place would be packed. Oh well, they missed out.

The Duo, a more concise and appropriate moniker for these musical gunslingers, and in name brings to mind the anonymous anti-heroes of spaghetti western fame, took to the stage and their instruments and filled the empty room with a flurry of sonic telepathy. While Joe Russo sat barricaded behind his drum kit and Marco Benevento enclosed in a wall of keys, they assaulted the sparse crowd with hyper, pounding drums and meandering layers of organ and electric piano.

The musical understanding that these former grade school classmates share is astonishing. As they sit facing each other, you can almost read the conservations taking place in their heads. These two guys create a rich musical texture that rivals the innovativeness and musical intrigue of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, with one less member. Joe is one of the heaviest hitters I’ve encountered besides Stanton Moore and Marco could teach Neal Evans a few things with his pulsing left-hand bass lines and busy right hand solos.

The Duo began their set with the hypnotic swirling of "Abduction Pose" from their second live release, Darts. A jazzy, electronic groove emanating from Marco’s keys and Joe’s fuzzy bass beat from an electronic drum pad, begin this progressive tune. They followed with "Scratchitti," a haunting, Bitches Brew era jam that evolved from squeaks and cries from the knobs on Marco’s organ into a psychedelic dirge for the damned. Then "Vortex," a somber organ driven tune bottomed by a barrage of breaks and beats. "Bronko’s Blues" began with a dedication to Mofro leader, J.J. Grey, and sandwiched a short, free jazz workout between a laid back blues groove that opened and closed the song before rambling into the avant-garde introduction of "Darts." This song contains quick flurries of sound amidst a funky groove that makes your arms ache and sweat drip just watching them perform. The summer breeze vibe of "Mephisto" was a welcome breather after the free funk of "Darts" and before the set-closing hectic cover of Monk’s "Bye Ya." An energetic tune featuring a rollicking drum solo and the resonance of Marco’s organ filling some of Monk’s signature silences, forced the tune to evolve into the Duo’s unique style.

Bothered more by the small crowd than the Duo, Mofro’s mix of juke joint blues and self-ascribed front porch soul relies heavily on crowd participation and they understandably were unable to get the train rolling full steam. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t hold anything back or simply go through the motions, but there were too few hoots and hollers from the crowd and beer bottles clanking together in the trash cans for them to really feel at home. The Northern Florida soul funksters began their set with a new tune, "War Going On" that J.J. announced they had polished off in the afternoon. They continued their set with a few of their tunes from their must have release, Blackwater, including the soulful "Air" and "Lazy Fo Acre" and their humorous funky ode to homemade Southern food, "Ho Cake." They threw a few blues covers in their boiling pot with a few more songs from the album, and ended the evening with the beautiful, introspective lyrics of "Florida."

Every time that I am fortunate enough to catch these guys, I become more and more enthralled by their leader, J.J. Grey. He has a voice that is unrivaled in this scene and blowing skills on harmonica that would make the legends proud. Add his gritty, guitar chops, simple but passionate piano playing, and songwriting ability, and he is easily one of the best front men in this business. Backed by the rock solid drumming of former 20th Congress member, George Sluppick; the slide guitar wanderings of childhood friend Daryl Hance; and recent addition Adam Scone on keys, Mofro creates a gumbo of Southern fried delta blues, N’awlins swamp funk, and Georgia soul. These are the kind of guys that have to wipe the red clay off their boots before getting on stage no matter where they are.

Despite the low turnout, it was an incredible evening of music. I am amazed by the sheer musicianship and understanding that the Duo weave throughout their songs whenever I am fortunate enough to catch them on tour. Mofro was solid as usual, although I feel that they are still trying to find their way back to their signature gut bucket funk, in the absence of a real bassist. The only fingers to point are at those unlucky music lovers who missed these two spectacular bands and could have greeted them with open arms and stompin’ feet.

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