Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
What I always forget is there's a whole nomadic nation within our own, a shifting mass of travelers that huddle together in fields and parks: festival people. The music fans who travel to the Bonnaroos and All Goods, the Langerados and the Austin City Limitses. People who generally place certain demands on their musicians, including, but not limited to: high energy sets, danceable music, the occasional very long, digressing solo. Optional requirements involve how the music interfaces with the drug-influenced mind.
So that's what to keep in mind when Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and the Benevento/Russo Duo ladle out a double-bill at Toad's Place March 5. These are two groups that are no strangers to that nomadic world. Potter's group got started in Vermont, touring the festival circuit with a sound that was parts rock, alt-country and, naturally, jam band.
At the Toad's show, what stood out most, other than Potter's white jeans, was the gospel revival sneaking into the high-energy performance, due in part to Potter's altar-quaking vocals and antic manipulation of the Hammond B-3 organ.
The band owes a debt to folks like Phish's Anastasio who rallied for them in their circuit across the nomad nation. This has no doubt contributed to the band's rise. But the band owes another debt to its resident lead guitarist, Scott Tournet, whose solos gave some character to songs that otherwise start to blend one in to another, held together often by Potter's smile and the beginnings of a rasp that, if properly cultivated by the 24-year-old, might reward her in 20 more years, say, with that ever-elusive thing: distinction.
For now they're playing the requisite high-energy thing, with some inspired moments (Tournet's solo work, those gospel flashes) and some that are silly, like when the band gathered around the drum kit and banged out a song together.
You can't fault them for having fun, though. And high energy like theirs definitely drives a show. So it's momentum, really. They've got it now. They've just got to keep it from getting ahead of them, from that nomad nation leaving them on the side of the road. -- Brandon Reynolds
Marco Benevento summed it up best himself: "This is the smallest crowd we've played for in a while." A few scant rows loosely arranged around the stage made as much noise as possible, attempting to reassure The Benevento/Russo Duo of Richmond's admiration.
Drummer Joe Russo and pianist Benevento exited the stage and played no encore. At best, the end-of-show attendance numbered 200, a trend that follows The Duo throughout their Virginia visits. Their performance, as the later half of the shared bill with Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, was a glaring example of this phenomenon.
The Benevento/Russo Duo, world renowned electro-indie nu-jazz act, entertained the remainder of the audience -- this slim tribe thinning towards the end of the night and a diminished huddle at the lip of the stage. This is not entirely surprising though. Aside from the obvious reasons for low attendance -- Wednesday-night show, other bands playing in town, extended opening act sets -- there is one reason that is unavoidable.
One Duo show is very similar to the next.
Excluding a few new songs that align closely with The Duo's previous efforts, the rest of their set was straight from the books. This is not a problem with most bands, but with a band like The Duo -- who have gained a cult following -- fans expect more.
Fan-favorite "Becky" was a stand-out. Sprawling from a Chemical Brothers-style break-synth arrangement, The Duo stretched into circular distortion and sounds reminiscent of video games -- ending with one of their token power-chord exclamations.
As The Duo's sets continually fall into previous footprints, it is a wonder if they will shine through their own success and make moves towards musical progress.
Benevento and Russo have seen careers that blossomed in fast-forward. After only a few short years playing together, the pair began receiving some serious attention from the jam-band community. Shortly after, The Duo began performing as a trio with Phish's Mike Gordon on the bass. Later, Trey Anastasio, front-man of Phish, was added on guitar. Under the unofficial name GRAB -- Gordon, Russo, Anastasio, Benevento -- the band embarked on an extensive tour of the U.S., co-billed with Phil Lesh and Friends.
After this quick trip to the top, The Duo seems to be musically stagnant. Yes, their shows are energetic, their improvisation is compelling, but the versatility is wearing thin. Relying heavily on electronic sampling triggers -- little pads that are hit to start or stop a synthesized sound sequence -- there is not much for the band to explore. There is only so far you can go with pre-programmed sounds.
The Benevento/Russo Duo have been playing virtually the same set of songs in their live performances for the last four years. It is apparent that fans have begun to notice this trend, and have simply stopped attending, or leave early due to an overwhelming sense of deja vu.
Will the Benevento/Russo Duo be able to reclaim the packed venues, or garner the intense crowd energy they have become known for? Will The Duo be able to keep their diminished cult following in a trance?
Last night's concert goes to show, if you want to keep a crowd engaged, wear tight white jeans like Grace Potter, don't play fusion jazz like The Duo. -- Matt Stangel