There is nothing like the crisp chill of the September air in the cozy Catskill Mountains. Especially when nestled in a valley by a beautiful lake, at Camp Minglewood in Hancock, NY. It was at this scenic venue that The Music Vibes had the pleasure of listening to the melodic sounds from the talented pianist, Marco Benevento’s, new album entitled Swift. One of the highlights of this year’s Catskill Chill experience was having the opportunity to chat with Marco before his Friday night set. Having hailed from the same hometown as Marco, I was especially excited to meet him and learn more about his early years and its impact on his music.
On that picturesque Friday evening amidst the cool autumn air and woodsy scents that hinted of the upcoming fall season, we made our way to Stage B with the notion that we were about to witness a fabulous performance. The term “fabulous,” however, doesn’t do justice to Marco Benevento and his band’s set. Like stuffed-crust pizza, the set was filled with new tunes from Swift, communal crowd swaying and dancing with friends and strangers alike (who would eventually become family). Benevento’s talented piano playing and his accompanying vocals, together with the sheer energy of the venue, had the performance far exceeding our expectations. Marco pleased his audience by playing some of his older concert favorites such as “Limbs of a Pine,” along with several new songs from Swift, including “At the Show,” and “Witches of Ulster.” The band closed out the night with their own unique rendition of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which then flowed seamlessly into The White Stripes, “My Doorbell.”
Comprised of Marco Benevento on piano, keyboard, and vocals, Dave Drewitz (Ween) on bass, Andy Borger (Tom Waits, Norah Jones) on drums, Marco and his trio released their new album Swift through the Royal Potato Family on September 16th 2014. Produced by Richard Swift, who has also worked with The Shins and Foxygen, Swift has been described by Time Out NY as being “quirky, psychedelic pop…guaranteed to move your body.” The Village Voice describes Benevento’s Swift as being, “A vocalizing party-starter,” saying that Marco, “extrudes sinister balladry and hustling disco beats.” Meanwhile, Relix describes the album as being “a lush and wizardly textured multitude of tracks, cohesively bound by a fully developed new sound.” In conversation with Marco, he described Swift as being “easy to swallow and upbeat with a lot of drum machine in it, and a bit of a party vibe.”
Beyond the pure instrumentalism of Between the Needles and Nightfall and the incredible hodgepodge of exceptional guest vocalists on the upbeat Tigerface, Swift builds in a new layer of texture that reflects the band’s musical growth. In Swift, Marco has begun to explore the realm of lead vocals, bringing in a hauntingly earthy lyrical layer that compliments the album’s deeply exhilarating musical style. With tracks such as “At The Show,” “Witches of Ulster,” “No One is to Blame,” and “Coyote Hearing,” which emphasize bassist Dave Dreiwitz’s crucial role in the band, this album is one not to miss!
The music of Swift clearly evidences the band’s evolution. Perhaps influenced by Benevento’s recent move to Woodstock, NY, where he has connected with many new musicians, often playing at Levon Helm’s “Rambles” where he has begun to more freely explore the realm of singing and communal musical collaboration, or other factors… The essence and purity of life and experience is so apparent in the composure of the new album that you can feel it, the life, the vivacity, as you dance to the music and partake in the eccentric yet alluring vibes.
The Music Vibes was privileged to have had the opportunity to talk with Marco Benevento before his set and to get to know the man behind the music on a more personal level. Growing up as an artist/musician, it was a pleasure to learn about Marco’s musical experience throughout college, the story behind the Tiger Mask, and about his new life in the Catskills. As if meeting with Marco wasn’t exciting enough, we also had the pleasure of meeting Marco’s good friend, and another one of our favorite musicians, Neal Evans of Soulive. Together, Marco and Neal were able to give us aspiring musicians some wonderful advice.
Rebecca: So I heard you were from Livingston, NJ….
Marco: Yeah, I grew up in Little Falls, NJ and then moved to Wycoff, NJ. I was born in Livingston.
Rebecca: Were you born in St. Barnabas?
Rebecca: Me too! I thought that was cool that we were from the same area. So, we’ve seen you a bunch of times and absolutely love your work. We know you have your new album Swift coming out soon… Will we be hearing some of the songs here?
Marco: Totally, we’ve been playing like five songs off the record.
Rebecca: We have often seen you play with your tiger mask on, starting with your performance at Equifunk and then again when we saw you play at The Blockley, in Philadelphia. We were wondering what the story is behind the tiger mask and if it has anything to do with your album, TigerFace?
Marco: We got that tiger mask at a rest stop in Canada and it wasn’t even meant to be a mask. We got a lion head and a tiger head, which were meant to just sort of hang in front of the grills of semis at a trucker stop. When I saw them I was like, “what are those?” and the lady said, “two for $25.00, they’re on sale.” So we got them on the road and this was before TigerFace came out. We had them for a while, I toured with the lion head on the piano. Then we made a record called TigerFace which had nothing to do with the tiger head from the rest stop, it was just a name that I liked… it was actually a friend of mine’s band name, “Tiger Face.” So then we just had that tiger face and one day we were having a party and we were shooting that video for “Limbs of a Pine” and we thought, “what if we convert this tiger head into a mask?” So we cut it up and turned it into a mask and then we used it live once when we did the Tiger Face tour and then it was like, “ok we need to do this every night!” So for the last two years we have been rocking the tiger mask.
Rebecca: It’s one of our favorite parts of the show!
Marco: But the tiger mask has to take a little rest now because of the new record and also the state of New York has deemed it un-wearable because of all of the germs that are all over it right now after throwing it around and people stealing it and stuff.
Rebecca: How was your experience at Berklee College of Music and do you think it has influenced your path as a musician?
Marco: Berklee was good, mainly because of two things. I had a teacher named Joanne Rakim and she sort of whipped me into shape. It was good to have that period of musical exercise from 18-21 when your brain is ready to absorb a lot of things. She taught me how to practice and really got me to another level from where I was at and that was awesome. My other teacher was Bruce Thomas and he was sort of my guy that was more the meditative, you know just sort of “learn how to be you” at the piano. Joanne was more the cracking of the whip kind of lady. Those things were great. Then all of my friends and I had jam sessions. For two years, Thursday nights we had a jam session at this place called the “Chopping Block.” There was a jam session at “Wally’s” that all of the Lettuce guys did and then we had our sessions at the Chopping Block and it was that sort of thing where people would just come out and sit in…That was good. I was just psyched to learn music all day, you know? I knew I wanted to have a band and go on the road and things like that. It was a nice cozy environment for four years, to actually just learn to play other instruments as well. I learned how to play bass, I also learned how to play hand drums, piano, jazz, classical…
Rebecca: That’s so cool!
Marco: I learned a lot about film scoring, about lots of things. I also learned to read and write music. It was good for me and it was four years out of my life. Basically, I got what I got out of it.
Rebecca: It’s nice going to school for something you enjoy doing.
Marco: Yeah, I took more credits than I needed to, I was a total dork. I mean I was happy being away from home… I mean home was great, but it was just really nice to be in the city with friends and you know playing music all of the time.
Rebecca: And Boston’s great!
Marco: My teacher even said, “Boston is like the bullpen and then you move to New York to really try to play the game.” And that’s what I did… I moved to New York and lived in Brooklyn for 10 years and kicked around, started a band with Joe Russo, and you know just grew and grew and grew until now… Now I have two kids and we moved out of Brooklyn and live in Woodstock, New York.
Rebecca: Was the move to the Catskills recent?
Marco: Three years ago.
Rebecca: Do you think that was something that inspired your new album? The change of environment?
Marco: Probably, in some weird way, but I don’t know. Yeah, I mean I have my own studio now, I have my own room, my own little building, separate from my house so I am very productive. Although, I was very productive in Brooklyn too. So I don’t know, I think a lot of other things affected me more so than the move, but that change was great. Now I am so peaceful at home. We have a garden and we have goats and chickens and bees and a big pond that we can swim in. So that’s the only shitty thing, it’s so nice that I don’t want to go on tour anymore — I just want to stay home.
Rebecca: It sounds beautiful!
Marco: Yeah! I would say that maybe the way that it affected me was that I met some new musicians. I met Levon Helm’s daughter, Amy Helm, Tracy Bonnom lives there, and they still do the Levon Helm barn thing, they still have the “Ramble,” concerts there in the barn and a lot of people sing and you just all play music and sing songs together.
It’s really communal and they just want you to get involved. I have been singing more and playing Dr. John’s stuff and James Booker’s stuff, so maybe it helped me get more comfortable singing.
At this point in the interview Neal Evans begins to walk into view and we hear Marco screaming, “NEALLLLLLL!” We hung out as the two good friends took some time to catch up talking about Kraz’s upcoming Cream set, recent performances, and an accident that Neal had during one of his shows in which he hurt his hand. Neal explained the scary situation and we were all happy to hear that everything worked out okay and he was feeling better now. The two of them were joking around having a good time talking about Neal’s parent’s suggestion of getting his hands insured, but also that it was a very serious topic being a musician in which your career is reliant on your hands. While Neal was hanging out we had the awesome opportunity to ask the two of them a question together.
Rebecca: You are both really inspirational to many musicians and to a lot of us that aspire to become musicians. I was just wondering if there was one piece of advice that you could give to an aspiring musician, what would it be?
Marco: Insure your hands! … and your feet as well if you incorporate tap dancing into your performance.
Everybody broke out into laughter.
Rebecca: I like that!
Marco: Well, friends, friends are really important.
Neal: You know what, it is. I tell people, I was just talking about a friend, a musician who is not playing that much anymore… it’s great that we get to play music, it’s amazing that we get to play music and that we are able to do this, living like this and we enjoy doing it, but it’s only music. And if there were no people here the music that we create as humans would not be here. Not saying that there would not be music or sound in the universe, but we wouldn’t be doing it. So I’ve noticed that people are the most important thing really. It’s a hard thing to kind of… it’s esoteric in my book, but if you really feel stuff when you are performing, it’s really the greatest drug… The vibe up there is because of people. We just get to wield the sound waves, that’s all our instruments do, we put these things together…
Marco: We are the maker, the manufacturer of what we want to project out to the people. There are only twelve notes of music…
Rebecca: So you would kind of tell people that want to do music and are practicing to just get out there and play in front of people and get that experience and make friends.
Marco: Yeah! Get your crew and play your music for your crew.
Neal: And I think that since we started playing music a lot of things have changed for the better. Like music being more accessible to people in so many ways other than having to hold a bullhorn up to your face over the mountains like, “Here… you can hear my song!” You know we got out there starting to play music by touring and traveling and it was interaction with people on every single level. So it’s cool that we can go home to our studios and create music and then we can get out there and translate that to spreading the music to as many people as possible.
So what would be music without ears for it to reach and what would be of concerts and band performances without the fans, the audience, the listeners, and the community of which it brings it all together? Without music, without the people, without the friends, such sounds may fall into thin air without the magical vibes that support it emanating from people like the Chill Fam, encompassing and sharing appreciation for this euphoniously melodic form of art.
In conclusion, Catskill Chill was an incredible musical experience, with Marco Benevento’s performance being one of the highlights of the festival. The Music Vibes strongly encourages each and every one of you to check out the band’s new album, Swift, your ears as well as your mind will definitely thank you for the indulgence. We cannot express how excited we are for Marco Benevento’s upcoming performances, especially those at our home base at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, PA. Get your tickets for their performances on December 12th and December 13th and be sure to get groovy with us! Shortly following the Philly shows, we can all meet again at Marco’s old stomping grounds at the Brooklyn Bowl on December 18th and 19th in Brooklyn, NY. Now go put Swift on as the soundtrack to bring in this season with!
Review written by Rebecca Wolfe
Photography by Rebecca Wolfe
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