Surprise Me Mr. Davis/Benevento Russo Duo, BB Kings, NYC- 1/1
The room was barely half full and people were still streaming down the stairs into BB Kings when the Benevento Russo Duo hopped on stage to start the late night New Year’s festivities. There had been some back and forth about who would open and who would close the double bill with Surprise Me Mr. Davis (Nathan Moore and The Slip), especially as the Duo had just opened for The Slip a few nights earlier in Boston. But then, just as the pair finished “Echo Park”, a suited quartet stormed on stage and drove into a spirited version of “Everything Must Go,” killing it right from the first note with Brad Barr’s fills in the chorus giving everything a classic, rock and roll feel. And just as they finished up, Marco and Joe were back, launching into the chant-happy “Play Pause Stop.” This was the pattern for the rest of the night: a song from one band, a song from the other, although as one might expect, various members began to linger with either group, and others would filter on and off stage in the middle of a given tune. Here, though, the Duo left their own imprint, stretching out the broad open area mid-song, and Marco teased "Auld Lang Syne" before sinking into a deep, buzzy thumper of a groove. In the midst of it all, Surprise Me Mr. Davis returned, Marco staying with them this time, for a heavy version of “When a Woman Cuts Your Hair.” To hear this band in the last five or six months is to have experienced a whole new ensemble; in the same way that The Slip filtered its jazz-wanking roots through an indie rock lens and came out with something fiercely appealing just prior to Eisenhower, SMMD has filtered its rootsy, vaudevillian showmanship and incredible songwriting through the same lens, and damn, if the result ain’t something fiery and bold. Plus Andrew Barr’s drumming on this one shined.
Now it was the Duo’s turn again, but Marc Friedman and Brad stayed on stage, Brad playing his guitar jack with his thumb while Marco tweaked out echoes from somewhere in his organ pit (much later in the night, Brad would introduce Benevento as playing on “whatever you call this,” while gesturing to the overflow of keys, pedals, wires and toys). The group crunched into “Becky” and Andrew came back out and the song just opened up for a long jam; in fact it never actually ended. Marco was ranting from the stage about a new beginning, and “It’s all brand new,” and it seemed a particularly good assessment of what was happening- really vital, exciting, mash-up music the likes of which I hadn’t seen all year. Marc was far on stage right crossing himself over and over again as Brad began riffing on “Autobody Experience,” an older Slip joint that they busted out in Beantown. Nathan Moore, meanwhile, was wandering about, blowing his harp and toting a little portable amp. Someone came out to set up an extra mic for him, but Nathan shook his head- that wasn’t the point at all. The jam then fell into an intense, wild drum duet. Joe’s big swinging percussion and Andrew’s tight, fast, incredibly steady break beat playing are so very different, and complement each other so very well. Now Brad and Marco picked up the vibe, offering one of the best jamlets of the night, the pair all pressed up on the side of the stage, and dropped into the bucking rock of “Sisyphus” with the full six piece ensemble. This approach, going song for song and then blurring the edges was so much more engaging than mere interlocking sets and made for a spectacular NYE gig (it should be remembered that Joe was part of the interlocking set revolution at the turn of the century at Wetlands, with all those Fat Mama > Ulu > Fat Mama > Ulu nights). There were really four full bands on stage at any given point, and elements of two more: The Duo, The Slip, and SMMD to be sure, but also MAM (Marc, Andrew and Marco) which was an insanely good trio playing Duo and Slip tunes in 05 before Marco started recording with his Marco Benevento Trios (which also include Andrew and Marc, though not in the same line-up). All that cross fertilization and camaraderie, the years of intimacy came out on stage- the music had so much integrity, was so cohesive and impeccably performed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some serious woodsheding occurred before gig time. Then again, knowing the players, maybe I would.
The Duo, just the Duo, was back for “Best Reason to Buy the Sun” > “Sunny’s Song,” the music sophisticated and cultivated, with layers and layers of sound, and the spaces in between where rhythm and melody grow hazy as concepts, and bleed into one another. And Joe’s drumming, there were these moments when he’d stopped drumming, but the beat had been laid so bare that everyone in the room was still bobbing their heads in time with the sound rattling around inside. And then when he returned the mix it was that much sweeter. Part way through the latter tune, Brad emerged and everything became breathtaking, beautiful.
The rest of SMMD returned, Joe staying on this time while Andrew stood on his stool playing tambourine and revolving in slow circles, leading to “I Want to Get to Heaven Before I Die,” “Roses and Bottles” and “Real World,” all of which stayed closer to their original arrangements than the evening’s earlier offerings. Stage time was stretching out like the night now, with each band taking more time to dig into its own material, and the Duo returned with “Something for Rockets,” a masterful Jersey anthem even if it is a tribute to its California namesake, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which harkened back to early days at The Knit which had, by that time, ended its final show on Leonard Street. The Duo can be hit or miss, amazing music one night, and just too loud and aggressive the next, but tonight they were perfect. Many of my favorite sets over the years have been at festivals where the two seem to respond well to the openness and make use of the space; whereas sometimes in clubs, all that energy will overwhelm. But here (and in Boston too) they brought that outdoor energy in and checked it with a good dose of small stage auditory theatrics- awesome musicianship.
Surprise Me Mr. Davis was on stage again for a pair of Slip cuts, a crowd-pleasing “I Hate Love” that had Joe singing along, and a wicked “Poor Boy” that seemed especially explosive at 4 AM, with Nathan’s masterful “Summer of My Fall” sandwiched between, this time with everyone singing along. The NOLA epic “Fat King of Gods” seemed like it would close out the night, with its ferocious performance and loud finale, “Let’s sing it drunkenly!”, but the six piece refused to quit, embarking on a long, long version of “19th Nervous Breakdown” absolutely littered with solos, back-and-forths and nearly a half dozen takes on the final chorus. The quartet left the stage, and Marco and Joe were talking when Nathan returned to say that it was later than they thought, and offered up an encore of “The Last One Ever,” as he and Brad led the slurring crowd through the sing-along, one so appropriate for New Year’s resolutions:
This is the last one, the last one ever.
This is the last one, I swear it.
Tastes so good, how dare it!
With that, the house music came on and the crowd began to filter out in to the cold predawn air. Except that not long after, the house music faded and Surprise Me Mr. Duo returned for an extra long second encore, including a finely sculpted “Stand By Me” that looked to be instrumental until the audience started singing, and then so did Brad and Nathan. Then came “Money, Money, Money” and “What a Wonderful World”, a staple of Brad’s solo acoustic sets. What a wonderful world, what a wonderful night.