Both Marco Benevento and Mike Gordon are known for duos. The Phish bassist has collaborated, on and off, with revered guitarist Leo Kottke for the past 20-plus years. At the same time, the keyboardist first made his mark on the national live-music circuit as a member of the instrumental combo The Duo alongside Joe Russo. During a particularly fertile period from 2004-2006, most of which took place while Phish was inactive, Gordon also mounted several short, spirited runs with The Duo as well as a larger outing with Benevento, Russo and Trey Anastasio as part of a project unofficially known as the G.R.A.B.—including a run of amphitheater shows with Phil Lesh & Friends.

Along the way, Benevento and Gordon played a proper duo show of their own at the now-padlocked New York experimental music venue Tonic on Nov. 1, 2006, where they covered the music of Benny Goodman and welcomed The Slip’s Brad Barr, who headlined a CMJ show at the venue later in the evening, for a sit-in. (Benevento, who used the night to kick off a residency that effectively launched his solo career, also sold signed keys from an old organ at the gig.)

Though Benevento and Gordon remain close friends and have occasionally shared the stage during the past 18 years, they haven’t put together a formal project since that intimate Tonic gig. They also haven’t performed together publicly since Gordon sat in with The Duo at the Suwannee Hulaween festival in 2017—which isn’t totally surprising given that Benevento now plays with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and leads his own trio; Gordon balances his time between the fully reactivated Phish and his solo band and that they both now have teenage children.

However, on June 29, the pair will reunite for a duo set at Benevento’s annual Follow The Arrow Festival in Accord, N.Y. The stacked lineup will also feature appearances by Os Mutantes, Ghost Funk Orchestra, Witch, Sam Cohen, Dave Dreiwitz, the Benevento Family Band and several others. As expected, the family-friendly event will also set the stage for additional collaborations. (On June 27, Follow The Arrow’s promoters announced that the festival will move to the recently renovated Bearsville Theater in Woodstock due to inclement weather.)

While traveling between tour dates with his current keyboardist, Robert Walter, during his solo outfit’s June run with Vampire Weekend, Gordon caught up with the Woodstock, N.Y.-based Benevento about what’s in store for their upcoming Follow The Arrow set.

Marco, you put together some interesting and unique collaborations for Follow the Arrow every year. What was your initial pitch to Mike for this year’s installment?

Marco Benevento: Mike has always been on the radar for Follow The Arrow. And by “always” I mean for the last two years, since we started the festival. [Laughs.] I’ve reached out to him before and, just because of scheduling, it hasn’t worked out, but for some magical reason this year it did, which is awesome. When I was thinking about what the heck to do with Mike, I was like, “Well, let’s just see if Mike can come by himself and maybe we can revisit the duo thing we did back at Tonic a long time ago [in 2006]—just keep it simple and with the vibe of the festival.

The festival is only one stage—all the backline is set up onstage and there’s 50-minute changeovers, which seemingly shouldn’t even be a working scenario for any festival. But for this festival, it’s gone swimmingly so far. There’s five guitar amps, two drum sets, and one or two bass rigs and amps set up onstage. People can choose what they want to do, or people can plug in and play on the fly. It’s super loose—the festival only holds about 1,200 people, so it’s a very small, daytime fest.

So I thought, “If we’re bringing in Mike, we should keep it loose, too.” As I said, there’s also a bunch of that gear set up onstage, so we may have some people come up and play a tune or two with us, which is what I’m all about, musically. I have always been into the spontaneous side of things. My mentality is: “Sure, we can think of some songs we want to play, but let’s leave room for the unknown” because that’s really when you’re walking the tightrope in front of everybody. And people at the festival love to see musicians searching and being unpredictable. You never know what’s gonna happen.

I love that about life in general—and sometimes I hate that about life in general—but that’s really my whole being. [Laughs.] Mike and I got on the phone, came up with some ideas and we have been texting during the past few weeks. We came up with almost too many songs to learn because now it’s like, “OK, remember, we have to leave room for the unknown.” I even went back and listened to some of the stuff we did at Tonic in 2006, and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it sounded. I remember it being fun, but it also sounded good! At that show, we did the music of Benny Goodman and we can potentially do some of that this time too. Since then, Mike and I have started singing more with our bands as well, so we can maybe sing some of those songs together. 

But, mostly I’m excited for the the headlining band to just be piano and bass. As I said, the festival is a day fest—2 p.m.-9:30 p.m., so no one’s camping out, no one’s staying overnight. There’s no crazy Silent Disco tent or wild DJ party at the end of the night. It’s a very Woodstocky and downhome.

Mike Gordon: Marco and I have done all kinds of things together, and I have all sorts of memories of us playing together. But to touch on the Benny Goodman one for a second, when Marco reached out 18 years ago and asked me to do a show with him during his Tonic residency, I wanted to challenge myself. So I said, “OK fine, I’ll do it as long as we only play Benny Goodman songs.” We called it “Guttman” because that was his real name. At the time, Sue and I were on this “The No Itinerary Adventure.” For the first time in our lives, we went on a road trip where we didn’t know where we were going each moment. We ended up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had a convertible car, I had this tiny bass that had a speaker and amp built into the body, she drove and I played Benny Goodman stuff that whole trip—sometimes along with the radio, sometimes just by myself. I was trying to get all of the different clarinet parts right, and there were even some piano licks that I wanted to learn. I barely scratched the surface, but it was a funny little challenge. So then, when this thing [festival offer] came up—and flash forward many years, with other memories in the middle—I thought, “I was thinking of else we can do?”

I did the thing with Joe Russo recently [as part of the This Is Gonna Be a Blast! series at New York’s Sultan Room], where there’s nothing planned, no rehearsal, no songs. I thought, “We could just do that,” but then again, I did just do that. [Laughs.] So then, here we were and, as Marco said, we started throwing around song ideas. Since the festival has an easy-going vibe, we want to leave room for the unknown. We don’t know who’s gonna sit in, so there is that unknown, but we also want to leave room for deeper levels of the unknown, like, “How many songs are we gonna do? How much are we gonna sing? How much are we gonna jam?” We’ve had lots of ideas, but I like the idea of just simply not knowing where it’s gonna land. That’s where the fun is.

MB: I remember, 18 years ago, when you said that you wanted to do the Benny Goodman thing—the Guttman thing. I was on tour with Joe at the time. I didn’t have a travel keyboard with me at that moment in my life, so I had to go into the lobbies of the hotels we were staying at to practice and learn these Benny Goodman songs. I remember thinking, “We’re really going for it, we’re challenging ourselves to learn a lot of music. There’s some heavy piano stuff in here.” We pulled it off, and it sounded great, but this time I thought, “Let’s revisit that, but let’s be a little easier on ourselves and learn a couple songs that we can sing.”

Since that initital jam at Tonic, you have both launched solo projects under your own names and made a concerted effort to focus on your lyrics and vocals. It must be interesting to connect with each other as your original catalogs have continued to expand and diversify.

MB: Yeah, definitely, which is why I was like, “Wait, we have actual songs that we’ve written that are, like, maybe easy two or three chord songs. We can listen to them twice and know how to play them for people and have it be entertaining.”

MG: This person who’s speaking right now, Marco, is someone, by the way, who once showed up at a band practice with the three of us—me, Marco and Joe—having learned all of “Foam,” a Phish song, which is a fugue. He learned the singing parts as well, and maybe three instruments worth of parts on a song that’s already daunting enough to learn. And then, another time, the three of us went into the studio with Trey [Anastasio, for the album Bar 17], where he had these arrangements for songs like “Goodbye Head” that are over the top crazy rhythms. One’s going up and some other ones going down, while the leader is dabbling in D-R-U-G-S all the time and trying to execute these takes. So it’s pretty cool when I experience someone like you, or Robert [Walter], who goes so deep into learning different kinds of music and then just forgets it all for the sake of incredible energy and smiley-ness. So, it’s a really good combination to walk into at any time for me.

I feel like “incredible energy and smiley-ness” could be a slogan on one of your next t-shirt design, Marco. Speaking of “Foam,” the two of you and Joe once played a 50-plus minute version of that song that took up an entire set. Do you remember why you decided to do that?

MG: And then there’s the seven-second “Foam” from the next night.

MB: I forgot about that! [Laughs.]

MG: The B-side [Laughs.] I remember liking the idea of taking songs that had these compositional parts that I played over the years and changing them so that what used to be a written part could open up and become a vamp. And so we took some parts of the song and just paused something that would normally just be played all the way through. I really wanted to try that, and it worked out really well for that “Foam.”

MB: I also remember being at the gig, which was at the Georgia Theatre, [in Athens, Ga.], and it was kind of undersold. We had done a bunch of shows together during the couple of months—or even year—before that which did well, and I remember being like, “Where is everybody tonight?” And we were like “OK! Look, just to let everybody know, you gotta come to every gig because you never know what might happen that one night you miss.”  I remember being like, “We’re just gonna give them a huge surprise because the room is half full and that’s messed up.” [Laughs.]

MG: That’s what we did when Phish did Dark Side of the Moon. We had done [The Velvet Underground’s] Loaded in Vegas for one of the Halloweens years and years ago [in 1998], and then Phish had a show in Utah two days after that. People were like, “We’re gonna do the Halloween thing, we’re gonna blow our brains out and then skip Utah and maybe we’ll see you in Colorado for the show after that.” So that was the night that we decided to learn all of Dark Side of the Moon, two days after having done this Halloween show where we covered another album—not that that was the crispest Dark Side of the Moon. [Laughs.] And now I’m sitting here with Robert, who became the keyboard player on the new Dark Side of the Moon tour with Roger Waters.

Speaking of Robert Walter, Mike, Joe Russo was in his 20th Congress around the time that you started playing with The Duo. The first time you sat in with them was at the New York club Tribeca, on keyboards, and then your first official gig with Marco and Joe was at a HeadCount benefit at New York’s B.B. King Blues Club almost exactly 20 years ago. Do you remember how you first connected?

MB: I do! Obviously, growing up in New Jersey in the ‘90s, Phish was the big band, and there were a lot of Phish fans in my high school—and I was definitely, absolutely one of them. But then I went to college at Berklee and, in the early 2000s, I linked up with Russo, who I had actually known since seventh grade, once again in New York.

We started playing together and then, the first amazing new step for us was that Andy Hurwitz at Ropeadope Records was like, “We wanna put out your record and we wanna record you.” And I remember being really excited about that and then Mike had a record out on Ropeadope around the same time

MG: Inside In—that was my first solo record [in 2003].

MB: So The Duo and Mike Gordon were both on the same label for a second there in the early 2000s. And then, from what I remember, Joe got a call from you because you were looking for a new drummer for something and Andy Hurwitz recommended you jam with Joe. I remember Joe being like, “Dude, I’m going to Mike Gordon’s apartment and I’m gonna jam with him.” And I was like, “What?! That’s incredible!’ and we were both just like, “We’ll see what happens.” And he went to your apartment, which was by The Old Knitting Factory in New York, and jammed with you. Then, immediately, he came to my house and told me all about it and I was like, “That’s so cool!” We didn’t know what would become if it then, but that started our relationship

MG: I also remember coming to a show the two of you guys did at The Bowery Ballroom [for the Ropeadope New Music Seminar in 2003]. I remember being up on the balcony and taking it all in and that’s where I caught the bug and drank the Kool-Aid [Laughs.]

MB: And the rest is history. You came to one of our gigs at Tribeca Rock Club in early 2004. Warren Haynes came over and sat in with us as well. My parents were at the gig, and I remember the next day they were like, “Who was that old lady that came up and played keyboards with you?”—because you had really long, curly hair covering your face and it was getting a little gray. And I was like, “That’s Mike Gordon! You drove me to see Phish when I was in high school, and that’s the bass player from Phish!” And they were like, “Oh my god, I’m sorry.” [Laughs.]

MG: And then, less than two years later, we’re driving through the South in a convertible—the three of us, just cruising the strip, cruising the gigs, with all our suitcases and guitars sticking out of the back of the convertible.

MB: And then, somehow, Trey caught wind of it and then we were like, “OK fine, I guess you can join the band.”

MG: [Laughs.]

Pages:Next Page »