Always a Night at the Improv

Frugality and innovation give Marco Benevento the freedom to be freaky

November 15, 2012

Marco Benevento is not famous. His songs don’t get played on the radio. He doesn’t get mentioned on indie-rock blogs or appear on late-night talk shows.

Yet for the past decade, Benevento has maintained a steady career releasing music on his own terms.

“I like not having to answer to anybody,” Benevento says. “Not that I’ve had to answer to anybody before.”

That’s because the 35-year-old experimental piano player has his own label, records in his own studio and works with whomever he wants, whenever he wants. He’s as DIY as DIY gets.

“We do everything we can to make sure we spend our money right,” especially with touring, Benevento says. “You do make money when you go out on the road. You get money handed to you every night. It’s about being frugal and not spending too much.”

If that means driving a van and crashing on people’s couches, so be it.

“You make your life a little harder but you’ll earn it a lot more,” he says. “I’m not too old yet. I’m not complaining about working too much.”

Benevento makes music on the fringe — a mostly instrumental style of rock that pulls in elements of improv jazz, pop, trance, industrial and classical.

He first gained attention from jam-band circles in the early 2000s for the now-dormant Benevento/Russo Duo. Benevento and drummer Joe Russo released two albums of anthemic instrumental rock songs you could hum along to, even though there weren’t any words. A collaboration with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon further made them a jam fan favorite, until the two took a break to focus on individual projects.

Russo started drumming in Furthur with members of the Grateful Dead while Benevento launched a solo career. He’s put out four studio albums since 2008.

Like his work with the Duo, Benevento’s solo records are an addictive mix of genres and are full of instrumental songs that somehow come off as lyrical. Benevento’s keyboard playing often acts like a melody where words would go.

“TigerFace,” like past records, was released on his Brooklyn-based label, Royal Potato Family.

“There’s not a lot of money being made, but there’s not a lot of money being spent either,” Benevento says. “You can make records so much cheaper now. Instead of it costing $20,000, you can make one for $5, or even for free on your laptop. It’s small, but we’re growing.”

In that sense, the growth of his label mirrors his own career.

“It’s a slow crawl, really,” Benevento says.

Liner Notes: Marco Benevento’s “TigerFace” opens with two songs that have words — a first for the piano player. “I’d never heard my music set to words before,” he says. Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver sings lead on both “Limbs of a Pine” and “This Is How It Goes.”

U Street Music Hall, 1115A U St. NW; with Wolf; Fri., 7 p.m., $15; 202-588-1880. (U Street)
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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Marc Silver · November 15, 2012