Galactic and Benevento Russo Duo, Norva Theatre, Norfolk, VA- 11/7
Usually, I feel like I should be hunting for SOMETHING to gripe about when reviewing concerts. There's so much room for little oopsies. Sometimes though, bands are so overwhelmingly tight that I just get to imbibe with complete joy and give thanks that my critical ear need not be so vigilant. Tonight was one of those fulfilling nights.
It's odd how a man (Marco Benevento) with the biggest smile can play the angriest sounding organ alongside a partner (Joe Russo – drum kit) who beams an evil grimace, wrenched from his concentration on the percussive plates in front of him. He's perhaps also fueled by the sticker on the back of Benevento's keyboard (facing Russo) which reads, "Evil lurks in the bushes." If nothing else, this duo gave Galactic's opening-band attendees a delightful mountain of aggression and falling action as proof that there may not be a better working duo; so sorry if you missed them, but go see them.
On the last night of their allotted four as Galactic's opener on the all-instrumental tour, the Duo made me wish I had seen them their three previous dates. I can't stress enough how impressed I was. Benevento handles the bass (keys) and keyboard melodies and harmonies dictatorially while Russo is seemingly unstoppable himself. He'll run the width of his toms, treat his high-hat like his bitch, stop abruptly and then hit everything harder, while staring you down. It's rare for two great drummers to occupy the same stage at the same time and while I wished for all that I could muster, it wasn't to be tonight, now or during Galactic's upcoming set.
Need goosebumps? Make those Russo anvil drops into brush strokes and allow the keys to sing. As Russo rained cool grains of sand onto his snare ("Mephisto"), Benevento's organ hummed in relief at not having to keep up so hard with hummingbird drumming. His grimy pair of keyboards and accompanying stands was totally soothing, telling and evidenced that a singer isn't necessary at all, if the gluttonous catalogue of jazz wasn't proof enough already. (Look for a studio release from Benevento Russo Duo on Ropeadope Records in March 2005.)
Here, I should make an admission: I've always preferred Galactic this way. Theryl "Houseman" De Clouet's voice and stare were magnetic, but I've never heard a freer musician than one who didn't have to play alongside the forced rigidity of vocal communication. Sure, singing is a talent (I wouldn't attempt to sing in public) and I'm certainly not one to shun language arts. But, the ability to extend yourself into an inanimate object and convey emotions and ideas out and into a mass, even if not everyone gets it or if they just get it in their own peculiar way, is truly a gift and a reason to give thanks and be admired. Galactic is testing their skills at conveyance through strict instrumentation, a style they started with, and seem happy to be back at.
Starting with "Clockstopper," their much fuller sound than that of the Duo (three more musicians will do that) was a welcomed main course. They were unrelentingly soulful and following Richard Vogal's (keyboard and Hammond B3) intro, Ben Ellman (saxophones) and Stanton Moore (drum kit) cleared the way violently; Ellman went off with the disruptive force your alarm can at 5A.M. "Doublewide" has a vibe that seems fitting anytime and has therefore become a staple. Jeffrey Raines (guitar) truly sounds better everytime I hear him and its evident he's studied from the school of Hendrix while Robert Mercurio (bass) has no problem tapping into Billy Cox (Band of Gypsys). "Doublewide" simmered down and Mercurio led the way directly into "Forbidden Horn." Their segues don't have the expansive quality of many jambands' developments. They are concise and to the point, no questions asked. You know where they are headed and Raines' gunslinger picking was steady accompaniment to the heavy leaning forbidden sax.
Ellman and Vogal seemingly held hands through "Calypso Minor's" harmonies (Vogal fingered some of his best here) and "Garbage Truck" was an invigorating set closer. I'm glad Galactic has adopted the forcefully weighty sound most jambands fear and shun for peace's, or something like that, sake. The sopping wet bass effects sounded like Claypool trolling in. And, have I mentioned that Raines keeps getting better? Ok, I did, but he does. During "Dump Truck," Ellman's harmonica started spacey, but got so spicy the lights had to be turned down, obviously to prevent combustion. And then there was the set break…
"Blackeyed Pea" featured a tom-heavy drum solo. Bearing his taught ever-smile, Moore layered tom upon tom, popping at his snare in probing licks that became complicated patterns underscoring his fills. He's certainly my favorite drummer to watch and although I'm pretty sure I've seem him do it every other time, he didn't grant his one-handed drum roll to us tonight. A sign of a more confident veteran who won't do tricks anymore? We'll see…
Ellman's baritone sax paired with Mercurio's sound to act as a double blanket of low end before Ellman and Moore were inspired in an all-out dual of their own ("Charlie Dozen"). Mercurio is certainly talented (hell, they're all great) and his sessions with Moore are forms to experience. Stanton's sticks are never overbearing during accompaniment, allowing Mercurio room to move around from funk to jazz foundations, and his strides never sprint ahead too far, making one of the most proficient and interesting drum and bass duo's you'll find.
"Mario Groove" was a song the Houseman wouldn't have missed, and without him, it has become an instrumental everyone has had to notch jams up for, to fill his space. Ellman has taken on a livelier roll and at times, Vogel sounded magical. I'm glad they haven't dumped their songs in strict favor of previous instrumentals. "Blue Pepper's" Middle Eastern influence kept feet shufflin' and was a shining platform for everyone's individual efforts. "Dump Truck" finished the second set and is always a crowd mover, highlighted by Ellman's distortion play. During Moore's floor-tom fills, it looked like his arms might rubberband away.
Encoring with a track ("Bongo Joe") off of their latest studio album, Raines came out with his acoustic in hand and picked assuredly. Mercurio and Moore offered a cradle, as they had all night, and the harmonica/organ face off intensified the encore culminating a night of superb music.