Review by: Todd Snelgrove
Photos by: Mike Bouchard
Live recording by Bradm
Last night Marco Benevento and his trio presented an evening of riveting blissed-out sonic onslaughts to a positively raging Ottawa crowd. A hundred best friends wallowed in one anthemic exploration after another during a night that felt more like a reunion than anything else.
I jumped out of a cab to find dozens of great people milling about outside the Elmdale Tavern around 10:30. Previous commitments prevented me from catching Dave Lauzon open the show with an Envelope 3 set, but all reports were glowing. Set break had just begun and as the place emptied I was greeted with a myriad of familiar faces from a thousand shows gone by. Hugs and high-fives kept me busy for the next twenty minutes; it seems this show had pulled out most of the old Ottawa crowd all on the same night, a seemingly rare feat as of late. And every hippy handshake reminded me that we used to do this a lot more often. Even the out-of-towners were out in a show of strength, with several of southern Ontario's usual suspects and even a new pair of regulars who made the drive up from a snowy Vermont for the show.
The Elmdale is a great choice for a new musical movement. A great staff presides over a room with good vibes and solid sight lines, plus there's pool. The place retains just enough of a dive feel to add authenticity to their admirable musical motif. The fantastic murals featuring icons such as Chuck Berry and Keith Richards (painted by a member of Big Jeezus Truck) surround a quaint little stage while the big red block letters spelling out NREVAT in the front window remind one that this is the kind of place our dad's used to spend hazy afternoons drinking out of stubbies and where Molson Ex is still available by the quart. Pickled eggs and salty, salty cheese sit on the bar like antique biology experiments and now, for a limited time only, the strangely attractive and utterly deplorable Double Down is available just next door at Scott's Chicken Villa.
Recognizing bassist Dave Dreiwitz from many a Ween experience I notice the band milling about on the sidewalk with the rest of us, waiting for the set to start. I love the homey non-pretension that comes with a band mingling with it's audience. Perhaps it indicates the band considers themselves and the audience equal players in the musical melange, one feeding the other in some sort of chicken and egg relationship, or maybe it just means the Elmdale has no band room. Either way, it's homey.
Joints puffed and smokes smoked, when the time came around both band and audience were ready out of the chute. As the players stepped onstage they already seemed warmed up, as did the crowd. Loosely precise from the get-go, from the opening notes it felt like a warm and fuzzy psychedelic barroom, the full sound lathering up a well-juiced group of hungry music aficionados. Heads were bobbing and beer was flowing while Benevento pounded out a barrel-house on his abbreviated upright Wurlitzer, accompanied by the aforementioned Dreiwitz and drummer Andrew Borger. The crowd got sucked in completely and immediately and quickly filled the vortex in front of the stage. The band took a big bite out of the energy they were given and spit it right back at the appreciative audience, and thus began a couple of sets of sonic symbiosis that reminded me of why I bother to get out of my house and see live music once in a while.
The great thing about a power trio is the players have so much space to fill they are free to overplay their asses off without stepping on toes, and in the right hands one can get doused in a sound that can get downright beautiful in it's manic intensity (for further study see: Led Zeppelin). By the third number all interested parties were in agreement that the levels were finally just right and the three musicians were free to overplay to perfection. Every piece of solid material available to them was utilised. Andrew beat every inch of his enormous Gretsch drumkit; skins, rims and stands alike while Dave stepped up Allen Woody-style to provide a frantically meandering low-end foundation on the bass that proved unrelenting. Marco has his piano pimped out with pickups and effects pedals and he wrenches some ungodly tones from every toenail of his Frankenstein monster. The keys are black and red, a peculiar setup that seems to give the piano some sort of super-power, akin to the car in the Blues Brothers movie, or when fire lights up a Flaming Homer. Together the three musicians are an unstoppable beast, especially when fueled by drunken love on par with what they were receiving last night.
Hovering mere inches over the band helped the crowd feel like they were in the drivers seat, maybe some a little more than others (too much?), but it looked like the band could really feel it; the night was one big long moment to cherish, and nobody wanted to spoil it. A show of this caliber is a real treat for the Ottawa scene and our appreciation was blatantly clear. Such a packed, intimate venue created some serious energy, and the band was obviously ecstatic to play for such a raging crowd. Indeed, I heard that Dreiwitz commented how he regularly plays in NYC for some pretty modest crowds, and having a chance to rage was as much a treat for him as anyone.
Drinking out of quarts makes me feel tiny, and drunk, and it looked like I wasn't the only one. Squeezing through the crowd to the cramped washroom was one of the comical highlights of the evening. After stepping over one wook that was too messed to know he was on the floor and past two more that were stuck somewhere between nodding and sleeping I burst into a bathroom replete with a NO2 tank and about a dozen freaky partakers. Every gender was represented and there was absolutely no room to actually use the toilet, so I sucked back a balloon and headed outside to pee like everybody else.
Back inside, the band was nearing the end of the first set. More accessible than MMW with a more honest and real groove than most of what passes for jam rock, acid jazz, call it what you will, Supertramp on LSD, these guys can play the sh!t out of one chord and even keep the jazz snobs happy, the next minute pumping out jazz chords while still managing to keep the hippy asses shaking. Nobody, and I mean nobody went home at set break, and primed and ready we all reclaimed our sweaty spots when set two finally rolled around.
A few songs in the band made a well-appreciated tip of the hat to Dreiwitz's higher-profile gig, with an instrumental homage to Ween's Baby Bitch that began a classic-rock journey that morphed in and out of Pink Floyd's Fearless, touching on Elton John's Benny & The Jets along the way. Every subsequent number was an anthem, every musical reference so perfectly placed and wonderfully executed they seemed nothing short of majestic. The crowd kept buying it so the band kept selling it, in bulk. To look around and hear music of this quality in a room this small was a shock to the senses. We all hung on every timbre, even (especially?) those that don't know what timbre means.
If there is a downside to seeing such consummate professionals in such a small setting it's the slightly demeaning chores they must endure like announcing last call, which last night launched into a delicious cover of Sloop John B from the great Pet Sounds before finding it's way into a Zeppelin medley that twisted Black Dog into a fist-pumping Moby Dick. The energy in the room got so thick even the soundman was standing on his chair singing along with Good Times, Bad Times, his arms raised in the air, eyes shut tight.
Thank god for “The fuÇking encore.” Perhaps inspired by the giant picture of Dylan on the wall, perhaps influenced by the unmistakable smell of reefer on, well, everybody, Marco et al kept the sing-along singing along with Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 [editor's note: The “fact” that 12 multiplied by 35 results in 420 has been deemed an utter coincidence and is likely not even based on true mathematics has been firmly and thoughtfully established beyond most reasonably consideration]. At the musical height of the evening, Benevento raced Bathtub Gin-esque quartal harmony lines up and down his music box and somehow got us to a divine cover of Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better, from The Spy Who Loved Me. The three of them (and I suppose the hundred and forty of us) bled it for all it could be bled, and after that there was really nothing else that could be done. Quenched, band and audience stepped away from the god of sound and called it a night. The promoter was pleased, the musicians were sated, the crowd and the bar staff appeared giddy with the night. Hell, even the grumpy lady who kept shooing the joint smokers away from the doorway outside was smiling by the end of the night (likely a contact high). Success. The night was a sweet, musical success.
Out on the sidewalk it seemed people were clamoring to have as many after-parties as possible and I myself managed to make an appearance at two. Absolutely refreshed in the nostalgic feeling of laying my tired drunken head down at 5am, I and the rest of my Ottawa brethren can't wait to find an excuse to do this again, real soon. Just like we used to.