In 2002, I remember walking down the street that lead to the back of one of the smaller stages at the High Sierra Music Festival late one afternoon and being amazed by the sheet of sound that was slowly encompassing me with every step forward. I remember thinking "there is no way that that much distinct music is being produced by two people, much less two people that are not household names." It was so hard for me to fathom, because it wasn't just how much sound they were producing that was surprising, it was the diversity of sound. Marco Benevento sounded like four different instruments played by four different people, each with a different style. Joe Russo sounded like an entire drum core, playing in perfect syncopation with one and other. It was only once I got in front of the stage that my eyes confirmed what my ears couldn't comprehend. The Duo is a name that doesn't do this pair justice, confining them to the reality that there are only two of them.
The road has been long for these two artists since that California afternoon so many July's ago. Both have achieved fame within the music scene, amongst those who know what a good musician is, regardless of what popular culture sees. They have performed in a number of other projects, both together, as was the case with G.R.A.B., and as individuals as Marco has done over the past year with Andrew Barr and Reed Mathis. Yet, it is clear that all roads lead back to each other for this pair. They compliment each other so well, cultivating musical extra sensory perception, like twins who know what each other is thinking.
Thankfully, these two brothers from separate mothers have once again reunited and they brought their barrage of sound to The Higher Ground last week. It was a cool Thursday night and they were competing with a Red Sox team on the brink of elimination, but the die-hard music fans still made the trip out. I suppose the reason the venue looked as empty as it did is because those that were there were only there for the music. They were packed tightly against the stage, covering the front half of the floor. This wasn't a show to socialize, not a show to hit on the ladies. If you were there, you were listening, and that speaks volumes about the sounds being made.
W.E.S.T. a four piece electro-jazz ensemble, opened the night's festivities. At first I was quite taken with the music these guys were producing. They were lead by a trumpet player who reminded me of a 'Tutu' era Miles Davis with his ability to play tones, rather than notes and stretch them in an ambient way, like a fog that seems to have no beginning or end stretching across a field. And this guy took it a step further, melding this sound with something new by controlling his own mixing board, ala Keller, allowing him to bend his sound in ways that could not be done without the benefit of digital effects. If Quentin Tarantino comes out with a new movie anytime soon, chances are there will be a scene where some badass motherfucker is walking slowly, wearing black and smoking a cigarette. The music of W.E.S.T. will be playing in the background. Problem is, as the set wore on, that's all these guys became- background music. Yes they were original, but their trumpet player and drummer were their greatest assets and they quickly became one-dimensional.
After an intermission that was long enough to be thought of as inconsiderate by the small and dedicated crowd, The Duo finally took the stage. But wait, they were a trio. Marco and Jon took their assumed posts and the third "player" set up shop in the back of the stage. He had a video camera at his disposal, as well as a laptop, and the screen on the back of the stage made it clear that his job was to supply the eye candy for the crowd.
The bodies were even more tightly packed against the stage than they had been before, as if the fans felt the need to be bathed in light and stage sound so they could create their own scene and become synchronized with what was happening on stage. The audiological journey, with the addition of the videographic sensory overload began furiously. Normally, Joe and Marco are so visually captivating to watch as they create their art, that the addition of the video screen only made their punch sting so much more. It allowed the musicians to show their rhythmic movement in another artistic medium.
Joe Russo's arms sprung into motion, like the tails of stingrays, long and strong and deliberate and deadly accurate. Its amazing to watch him use his whole body, whipping the sticks at the drums, all the while playing with intense dynamics and fluid rolls and feline like quickness. The title of the night's first song 'Circus Cats' epitomized the playful dexterity that Joe brings to the music. He is omnipotent over the drums, allowing him to focus on one aspect while enjoying five. The song felt like a circus with thrills and chills, oohs and ahhs and co-ring leaders. And the stretches that Joe did between songs, holding both hands on his sticks and taking his arms up and over his head, then behind his back, only helped confirm what the first song made me believe- this guy is from another planet (or at least double jointed).
It didn't take long for Marco to show how he can fill the stage with unintensive, yet intensive sound, making you comfortable with his attempt to harmonically dominate you. Despite Marco's frequent attempts to get Page McConnell to join them on stage, Dave Grippo was the first musical guest of the night. But even with his strong saxophone playing, it was Marco, not Dave, who continued to show his chops. He looked like a mad scientist, but instead of test tubes, he was surrounded by pedals and effects stacked on top of each other in his laboratory of ivory. He is insane and yet totally at ease drenched in heavy B-3 and Hammond chords, from progressive funk and jazz to classical and rock.
This threesome was producing an explosive sound. So often with The Duo it is very hard to differentiate between what is improvised and what is a rehearsed progression, because it often seems entirely thought up in the moment. But then, they fall into such continuity that I question when the improvisation stopped and the chorus began. But that's what keeps it so fresh feeling, right?
Long after Grippo left the stage, the boys had drunk their fair share of whiskey and the clock struck midnight. The Duo left the stage for a brief moment, only to return with a third member once again. This time it was their bassist from the G.R.A.B. tour, Mike Gordon. A kindred spirit, Mike fits the erratic, improvisational fits of harmony that these two are capable of. Watching Mike's face while he played with The Duo was like watching a heavyweight who had finally met his match. By no means was Mike overpowered, but he was scrambling at times to keep up. And what were the boys of The Duo doing? They were laughing and creating musical mastery- a.k.a. what they do best.
You see, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo are most comfortable when they are together. I could only imagine growing up with one of them. Chances are they both seemed like incomplete beings, waiting to find their other half. Marco is jazz, Joe is rock, but they can just as easily switch roles without you ever knowing. Joe is rhythm, Marco is blues, but they can move together into Led Zeppelin infused head banging, leaving you scratching your head about what just happened. There are many groups, but there is only one Duo.