Music as memory

Marco Benevento, live at the Museum of Fine Arts, July 1, 2009
By JON GARELICK  |  July 7, 2009

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When I first saw him perform, at Newport last year, I slammed pianist Marco Benevento for playing "bombastic, leadfoot, pedal-to-the-metal instrumental rock." But that was long ago in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.

The New Jersey–born Benevento came up through Berklee, studying with the keyboard geniuses there (Joanne Brackeen among them), and he seemed set to follow in their footsteps as an acoustic-piano-jazz kind of guy. But in the meantime he fell back in with his old high-school pal drummer Joe Russo, formed a duo that trailed the jam-band scene, and started leaning the rockish way.

His newest album, Me Not Me (Royal Potato Family), has its rock covers and rock rhythms — My Morning Jacket's "Golden," Deerhoof's "Twin Killers," Zep's "Friends." But the CD and the MFA show (inside Remis Auditorium instead of out in the courtyard — thanks, endless rain) emphasized something that had been subordinate to the big four-square rock beat at Newport: a love of bawling, romantic melodies. These days it's not so much rocking out that Benevento seems in love with — though there's that, too. It's the pop song. He's not afraid of the obvious pop-rock chord change, or of playing a tune like "Golden," which seems to need a singer if it's not going to descend into treacle. And he just loves those structures — the smooth hooky, Beatles-esque movement in and out of the "the middle eight."

You could hear that movement in his cover of Amy Winehouse's "You Know That I'm No Good" (" 'cause you're my fella, my guy. . . .") and originals like "Bus Ride" and "Atari." Which is why the jam-band tag doesn't really fit with Benevento either. Most of his songs in the first set that I caught at the MFA (and a couple after intermission) were four or five minutes long — shorter than most live jazz songs. He favored a tricked-out upright piano, with effects knobs arrayed across the top of the case, the whole shebang fed into a guitar speaker. As on Me Not Me, he deployed effects, loops, and delays freely, even a bit of mellotron, and the keyboards sat somewhat back in the mix, with drums (Josh Raymer) and bass (Marc Friedman) out front, so all those sentimental melodies were heard through a haze of busy beats and occasional touches of fuzz bass. Meanwhile, Jay Cooper mixed video on a backscreen — animated pink elephants, a backwards-running merry-go-round, shadowy live images of the band.

In his between-song banter, Benevento came off as happy-go-lucky, but his instrumental pop carried emotional weight, especially on a rare ballad like Leonard Cohen's "Seems So Long Ago Nancy." When on "Golden" a slow arcing piano melody soared up and through a mix of live, clattering drum 'n' bass and thumping rhythm loops, it was pop music experienced as a memory. And that merry-go-round recalled Mad Men's Don Draper slide-machine sales pitch: "nostalgia — the pain of an old wound."

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