It’s the middle of Marco Benevento’s second set and he’s wearing a giant plush tiger head while dancing goofily against bassist Dave Dreiwitz, who is smirking and stifling a laugh. After a few seconds of cheer-inducing dance moves, Benevento removes the tiger head and places it on Dreiwitz, then immediately turns up the bassist’s fuzz pedal in time for a solo. It momentarily appears as if the massive tiger head is funneling power into the musician. The head is then transferred to drummer Andy Borger, who also kicks up the intensity of his rhythm. The tiger head power circuit is now complete. Benevento returns to his piano and the trio collectively returns to the song, “Limbs of a Pine,” off the 2012 album TigerFace.
Moments like these are emblematic of Marco Benevento as a performer: gleefully entertaining and devoid of pretention despite his widely appreciated talent as an inventive pianist/keyboardist and composer. Benevento’s Friday night show at Mexicali Live was almost certainly the most fun thing going on for miles – the venue’s North Jersey location is just off a busy highway, but most of the surrounding buildings and shops are dark by 8 p.m. It’s an undercover cool spot in the middle of suburbia. Benevento is of North Jersey origin and grew up just a few miles away from Teaneck, and he mercifully did not skimp on bringing a three-hour dance party to the sleepy area. (He also introduced his bandmates as Jersey guys, much to the audience’s approval.)
The first set started without fanfare – Benevento slipped on stage and started up a solo piano introduction under a spotlight as Dreiwitz and Borger took their places. For a few moments the two stood still in the darkness, then joined in and segued into “Fireworks,” a serene, midtempo track from TigerFace. People rose from their dinner-table seats and crowded around the stage as a universal head-bob started to occur.
This was a warm-up for the rest of the night – now the crowd was on its feet and ready to take a piano-led journey. Benevento banged on the keys during TigerFace tunes like “Going West” and “Escape Horse.” The hard-hitters flowed with ease into jammier songs: “Greenpoint” felt like an especially psychedelic ride as it ebbed and flowed. The crowd grooved along during “RISD,” off of 2010’s Between The Needles & Nightfall, which steadily built off its simple but powerful piano melody. The trio maintained a sharp sense of cohesion as it moved from song to song, which made the show feel like one unified experience and created an atmosphere that accommodated getting into a pleasant headspace – and staying there. Benevento didn’t speak frequently, but did deliver news to the audience: “We’re going to record a new record in a month, so we’re playing some new stuff.”
The second set was abundant with Benevento’s brand of freewheeling fun (culminating with the tiger sequence). He teased the Super Mario theme song before leading into “Atari,” a fast-paced fan favorite from 2008’s Invisible Baby that sounds exactly like being inside an old-school video game. He sang along to the melody of the wordless “The Real Morning Party,” another song from the same era filled with experimental electronic sounds. His bandmates shared smiles as Benevento laughed while singing the melody over and over.