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Sometimes Marco Benevento Plays His Piano Like a Guitar, But His Shows Are Always Parties

[Lexington Herald Leader]

By Walter Tunis

A Marco Benevento record, much like a Marco Benevento live show, is something of a carnival. At work are synths and drum machines underscoring layers of keyboard patterns, pop melodies, groove-directed rhythms and bass-drum backdrops that add up to a merry fuss. Out in front, understandably, is Benevento himself, a learned musical pro whose stage demeanor has steadily over the last decade become as animated as his playing.

Now look at the instrument that fuels all the mayhem: the piano. Sometimes you forget the instrument is even there within the orchestral party music that comprises Benevento’s two most recent recordings, the 2016 studio set “The Story of Fred Short” and the 2017 concert album “Woodstock Sessions.” And that, he will happily tell you, is kind of the point.

“When people think of the piano, they think of old timey music, the very classical sound of the instrument,” said Benevento, who performs tonight with his trio (completed by bassist Karina Rykman and drummer Andy Borger) at Cosmic Charlie’s. “That really seems like a contrast to all the drum machines and the synths and whatnot. But there’s something about the marriage between that sort of timeless sound of the piano and the drum machine and synths.

“Some of that has to do with the fact the piano is actually coming out of a guitar amp. When you hear me live, I’m playing it through a guitar amp. Then I use tremolo, reverb and distortion. The piano sounds electric half the time during the show. There are parts where it’s just sounding normal and clean. But sometimes, there is heavy distortion to where it almost sounds like a guitar. I think modifying the piano helps in this kind of a setting. It certainly provides a contrast.”

Benevento began forging his new piano and keyboard voice in New York after graduating from Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. That’s when he started experimenting with a host of progressive jazz and jam related improvisers that included Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish, Billy Martin of Medeski Martin & Wood and the drummer with which he formed a popular duo for several years, Joe Russo.

“That was a very fertile time, musically. There were just a lot of things happening — a lot of gigs, a lot of meeting people. I was right out of college so I was eager to become a musician. I was touring with Joe and playing with the guys from Phish on some bigger tours of amphitheatres. Between 1997 and 2006 was just insane. There were lots of different gigs with people. You would hop in a van and get out of town with a piano and a Rhodes (electric piano). And along the way I made a record.”

That record was “Invisible Baby,” a work that helped introduce Benevento’s genre-jumping, keenly layered, groove friendly music. The primarily instrumental sound proved a hit with jam band audiences. Curiously, Benevento is celebrating the 10 year anniversary of “Invisible Baby” with a re-release of the record due out in March. Its pastiche-liked blend of piano, percussion, mellotron, banjo and Casio keyboards meshes with elements of classical, prog, funk, pop, free-style improvisation and more.

Much has changed between then and the one-two punch of “Fred Short” and “Woodstock Sessions.” While Benevento has lost none of his almost whimsical sense of experimentation, the grooves are quirkier, the keyboard sounds have expanded and the overall structure of his songcraft has shifted because Benevento is also a vocalist now.

“Going back 10 years ago, I was sort of finding a voice for ‘Invisible Baby,’ so having that record evolve into what ‘The Story of Fred Short’ became is kind of wild. Just going from record one to record seven, which I’m working on now, is wild.

“When we started off as an instrumental band, we were playing for 150 to 200 people in these little sit-down rooms. We played sort of a rock/jazz sort-of thing. Then it evolved into me opening my mouth.”