Photo by Hazel Dunning
It’s a big month for Marco Benevento, as the keyboardist has just released a new album called “Benevento” and is about to host his inaugural festival. The keyboardist known as half of the beloved Benevento Russo Duo, the popular Grateful Dead tribute band Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and his longstanding solo career, made the experimental record by himself in his home studio. The title is a playful nod to Paul McCartney’s 1970 solo debut, “McCartney,” which was made in a similarly homegrown and isolated fashion.
The festival, Follow the Arrow, will take place Saturday, June 18 at Arrowood Farms in Accord, NY, not far from Benevento’s home in Woodstock. In addition to Benevento, the lineup includes Antibalas, The Slip, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Mikaela Davis and Karina Rykman. (More info and tickets here.)
Benevento recently chatted with us about his new release and Follow the Arrow.
You recorded the album at your home studio. Tell us about the space and how it helped shape the music.
It’s a small place, 20 feet by 10 feet, just wall to wall keyboards. My friend calls it Inspiration Station. Just a little home studio with a drum set, bass amps, guitar amps, as much as I can cram into this tiny room in a separate house next to my house up in Woodstock. The pandemic hit and I was kind of happily hunkered up here in Woodstock with my family and finally able to work on all these tunes that I hadn’t been able to get to because I’m always on tour. I was really productive during that time and basically made two albums’ worth of stuff, and this is the first one. It’s me playing everything, I’m playing the drums, bass, singing, keys, a little guitar. But I kind of just embraced the fact that everything was kind of in isolation and thought, “You know what? This might be the perfect time to make the weird record I’ve wanted to make.”
For the keyboard nerds, which ones did you play on the album?
Oh, a Mellotron, Hammond organ, Clavinet, piano, a nice Steinway Model M from 1970. I have a Korg PolySix, a bunch of ’80s keyboards, like some good Roland keyboards. A Farfisa on this one. I also have a pretty rare keyboard called a Clavioline, which is the sound on “Icky Thump” by The White Stripes and “Baby You’re a Rich Man” [by The Beatles], it almost sounds like an electric bagpipe. Some rare gear.
You’ve said that Krautrock influenced the album. Is that a new influence for you or something you’ve been into for a while?
I’ve been listening to that forever. I’ve always loved Can and this band called Neu! I’ve always loved these hypnotic repetitions, and 8- to 12-minute song with a repetitive bass line. There’s one song on the record that I kind of take that approach, “Do You Want Some Magic,” where I make an attempt at that sound. Other songs include West African [influences like] Francis Bebey and William Onyeabor. They’re kind of similar because they’re long, repetitive jams, but the West African thing is more drum machines, more Moog solos, but the Krautrock thing is more drums and headspace and not bouncy solos at all.
Having recorded these songs yourself, was it challenging to translate them for the stage with your band?
I’m not much of a drummer or bass player, so it’s easy for me to be like “learn this,” and it’s “yeah, no problem.” It’s actually an easy process.
You’ve had this band lineup for some time now. Tell us about them.
Karina Rykman joined our band, I don’t know, I think it was six years ago. She’s just a killer bass player and she has her own band as well, she’s just a force of nature, an amazing person and a great bass player, and she’s down to rock out for sure. She is a great presence on stage, which is awesome, because before Karina was Dave Dreiwitz, and he’s in Ween and also in JRAD, and Ween’s touring more, so he can’t do the tours with me, and Karina came in and saved the day. And it’s nice to see the audience not look at me and be looking at someone else. She was even hesitant and asked, “If I hit the fuzz bass and put my leg on the speaker?” “Yes, please, Karina, anything to not look at me, let’s get you involved.” Almost like this equal thing, this Karina and Marco show kind of thing. The drummer, Dave Butler, he plays with Guster, he’s also toured with Lee “Scratch” Perry. He’s kind of a new member too, he’s been with us the last three or four years. He’s killer, he knows all the tunes, he knows the vibe. I love music with heavy drum fills, I love John Bonham and Keith Moon. There’s only three of us on stage, it’s piano, bass and drums, so everyone is playing full volume, full force. So it’s not a jazz show. It’s not a trio sort of thing, where you might have this kind of sit-down experimental show. Our music, you are dancing the whole time, you’re standing up the whole time, and we like to party and have a good time.
How did the idea for the Follow the Arrow festival come together?
It’s been in the works for a while, the pandemic really slowed it down. Before the pandemic, we were trying to make this happen for the last four or five years, but it’s been difficult with my touring schedule to find a weekend to pull it off. We finally found a weekend to do it. It’s at Arrowood Farms up here in the Woodstock area. It was brought up by my manager and this guy named Drew who works at Levon Helm’s barn, they’ve put on a few shows over there. They wanted to call it like a Benevent. We didn’t go with that name, we went with Follow the Arrow, and it’s the name of one of our songs. We booked a bunch of my friends like The Slip and Antibalas and Surprise Me Mr. Davis, and they were all at the top of the list. There are two stages, and there’s going to be music from noon to 10 at night. It’s going to be great. We’re also doing a Benevento Family Band segment. My two girls, my wife, Katie, and I also have some cousins and my dad and maybe some aunts and uncles.
Absolutely. We got Scott and Bogie, we got Cochema Gastelum, and Leon Michels, he goes by El Michels, is going to be spinning records there and he’s also an amazing flute player and is going to be sitting in with us. They’re artists at large. “Put me in coach, let’s do it.”
You’ve played all sorts of festivals. What have you learned about what you like and don’t like about them, and how have you applied it to your own festival?
You know, first and foremost, good food, honestly. Sometimes you go to play a festival, and oh my goodness, we’ve got warm beer and cold burgers, this is going to be a long day. There’s going to be some excellent, delicious food.
You’re also playing outside, so you’re not battling the acoustics of the room. It’s just beautiful to play outside. I prefer to play outside. The music just goes out there and into the field. Good sound, good food are some top ones. It’s also nice when it’s a lot of people you know. When you go to play a festival and, “Ah, dude, I haven’t seen you in so long, it’s great to see you.” Or you hear music and everything you hear is great. Other times you go to a festival and it’s like “What band is that? I’m going to go hide for a while.”
You’ve played Peach Festival in Scranton a bunch of times, and you’ll be back there with JRAD in July. Do you have any specific memories of playing that festival?
Oh, about Peach? Oh man, what a fest. I always have a great time going to Peach. Great hospitality, great food, they know what they’re doing. It’s funny, every time we play Peach, we always play the big stage and have to go to the airport. I rarely get a chance to hang out but when I do, it’s usually on that main stage, it’s awesome to see all of the folks that I know coming through, like the guys in Trey [Anastasio’s] band, Warren Haynes and Rich Robinson. Steve Bernstein I’ve hung out with there. I like it because you’re in this one area, and there’s all these tour buses parked behind it. It’s kind of lame I haven’t been to the other stages. I found out there’s a water park. What, there’s a water park?