Most bands' backstory starts with a few friends jamming in a basement or at a club, hitting it off and hitting the road. The Benevento/Russo Duo's story sounds something like that, but ultimately it came down to lunch money.
In January 2002, drummer Joe Russo scored a gig Thursday nights at the Knitting Factory in New York City. Since it paid only $100, he knew he couldn't get three more people to jam with him, so he called up his old buddy Marco Benevento, a keyboardist, and they split the pot.
"We were like 'all right ... $50 each,'" Benevento said. "That's like grocery money for the week. That's how the band started. We never really were like 'Let's start a duo, and make it this different thing where it's only a duo.' It was never preconceived. It was just like 'Dude, you want to make $50 on a Thursday? Yeah!'"
They started off with gobs of improvisation, stretching out songs to 10 or 14 minutes. It was like back in middle school when they'd jam together in Russo's basement. Word went around that two guys were setting the Knitting Factory on fire, and members of other bands on the jam circuit -- including Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno -- dropped in to dig the sound. The duo became The Duo. The Brooklyn band plays Saturday at Rams Head Live.
"It was just like 'Wow, I think we're a band,'" Benevento said.
The first two albums they cut had plenty of jammy tracks, but in the last year they've put the focus on songs, not solos.
Benevento, now 28, said they got the idea when they were in the car listening to some jazz album, and Russo said: "Man, I don't really get off on a solo. I get off on a song over a solo."
Benevento chewed on it for a second and agreed.
"What makes the tune is the song," he said, and that was that. Right now, they're into more guitar-based rock (even though they don't have a guitar), including Modest Mouse, Wilco, Radiohead and Broken Social Scene.
The result is Best Reason to Buy the Sun, the band's new album, which features more symphonic and arranged songs. Several could fit easily onto a movie score -- which Benevento would love to see happen.
"I would just say I'm open to people using our music for soundtracks," Benevento said. "I hear that song "Becky" and I think of a spy movie, like a James Bond kind of movie or a chase scene."
Benevento said he originally went to Berkeley to pursue film scoring but couldn't stand being cooped up in a studio writing soundtracks for films or commercials. He fell in love with performing and focused more on playing out than composing.
Live, The Duo's sound is huge -- especially for two people. Benevento covers the low end by playing organ bass with his left hand and chords and solos with his right. Russo plays drums and a digital sample pad.
While The Duo tour the jam scene pretty hard, like most bands on the circuit, they don't consider themselves a jam band.
"A lot of musicians don't want to be called jam bands," Benevento said. "Nobody likes saying 'Oh hey, we're a jam band.' At least that I know of."
Benevento said one time they played in Canada, and a Canadian reporter interviewed Russo about how they were a rock band, not a jam band. They picked up the paper the next day and the story read 'groovy jam band comes to Canada.' In protest, Russo wrote 'We are not a groovy jam band' in permanent marker on his arm.
"I love that people in the [jam] community like our music," Benevento said. "I know we're not a jam band. We don't have a 20-minute guitar solo over one key. We don't have elements of jam, which to me, that's a big part of it."
Benevento said the music also appeals to a huge scope of people outside the jam scene. He said jaws dropped when they played in Japan, and people loved their show at the Sasquatch music festival. So how would he describe the sound? "I would say ... instrumental jazz rock that blows your face off," he said. "It's really communicative, it's really conversational and it's nice."
The Benevento/Russo Duo plays Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live, at 9 p.m. Saturday. Call 410-244-1131 or visit www.ramsheadlive.com. For more about The Duo, visit www.organanddrums.com.
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