Though they’ve never met, few figures occupy as intriguing a place in acclaimed keyboardist Marco Benevento’s mind as Fred Short. For Benevento, Short represents a variety of things: an itinerant musical shaman; an ominous messenger of looming environmental disaster; the namesake of the street he lives on (and the recording studio he built there) in upstate New York; and, ultimately, the inspiration for his sixth solo album, ‘The Story Of Fred Short.’
“One winter evening, I was finally home from the road with a night to myself in the studio, which I named after Fred,” Benevento remembers. “The conditions were perfect that night, and I improvised all the songs that make up Side B of the album. It all came out in an hour and a half of playing, and then over the course of the next year, I extracted the song ideas from that improvisation and turned them into the record.”
Benevento had a new tool at his disposal in the studio that night: his voice. He began singing for the first time on 2014’s ‘Swift,’ which was hailed by Relix as “uncompromising and continuously inspired.” Since then, Benevento has honed in even more on the warm, easygoing timbre and expressive quirks of his voice, working with fellow Catskill musician Kenny Siegal as a vocal coach to push him to his boldest and most adventurous work yet.
“My voice has now become this other instrument in the songwriting process,” explains Benevento. “When I’m playing chord progressions, I start to sing or hum a melody, and suddenly it’s not just my two hands on the piano anymore when I’m improvising.”
What poured out of Benevento that night—sometimes in lyrical form, sometimes in syllables and sounds he had to decode later—was the story of Fred Short’s life. Much like the music, Benevento improvised the narrative, tracking how a Zuni Native American from California worked his way to New Mexico and eventually the Catskill Mountains, where he became renowned as a local shaman hosting all-night musical bacchanals on his property. The result is a seven-part epic, with Short serving as both a teacher and a prophet, extolling the virtues of brotherhood and coming together to celebrate life at the same time as he warns of the dire consequences for the planet should mankind continue on its current path. Blending wild, psychedelic rock and roll with funky synthesizers and hypnotic drum grooves, each track segues seamlessly into the next, blurring the boundaries between Benevento’s celebrated studio work and the superhuman live performances that have earned him an unparalleled reputation across genres.
Dubbed “one of the most talented keys players of our time” by CBS Radio, Benevento has performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall and Newport Jazz to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo to Pickathon and New Orleans Jazz Fest, and his work recording and performing with producers and musicians like Richard Swift (The Shins, The Arcs), Jon Brion (Spoon, Aimee Mann), A.C. Newman (The New Pornographers), Simone Felice (The Felice Brothers), Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos, Edie Brickell), and Sam Cohen (Yellowbirds), show the remarkable depth and range to his playing. “It’s safe to say that no one sees the keyboard quite like Marco Benevento’s genre-blind mashup of indie rock, jazz and skewed improvisation,” the LA Times raved, while NPR said he combines “the thrust of rock, the questing of jazz and the experimental ecstasy of jam,” and Rolling Stone praised “the textures and colors available in his keyboards and arsenal of manipulated pedals and effects,” along with his “deceptively rich, catchy melodies and straight-ahead grooves.”
Those infectious melodies and grooves shine through on Side A of ‘Fred Short,’ showcasing a sound that’s equally as inspired by LCD Soundsystem and Gorillaz as it is by Harry Nilsson and Manu Chau. Recorded with both a live drummer and a rare Casio drum machine that’s become a recurring muse, the songs are mesmerizing dance-rock gold, propelled by the “bold indie rock” (Brooklyn Vegan) of lead single “Dropkick” and the fluid splendor of “Heavy Metal Floating Upstream,” which features the entrancing guitar work of friend and former bandmate Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers.
“This album is the first time I included guitar on any of my songs,” says Benevento. “The Barr Brothers had a gig in NYC and they were cruising up to Montreal afterwards and wanted to stop by for a bit to check out the farm and the studio. I played them a rough mix of the first track, ‘In The Afternoon Tomorrow,’ and said to just play what comes to mind in the first take or two. Brad’s such a tasty guitar player, and [drummer] Andrew brought this playful energy.”
The Barrs aren’t the only special guests who visited Fred Short. Fellow Woodstock musicians like Tracy Bonham, Mike & Ruthie, and Chris Maxwell all stopped by for impromptu contributions.
“All that stuff was spontaneous,” explains Benevento, who self-recorded the entire album at his own studio with his band—bassist Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) and drummer Andy Borger (Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco, Norah Jones)—for the first time in his career. “I’d just tell people to throw on some headphones and see if they wanted to add anything while they were here. That’s how I like to roll with making records and writing songs. It’s like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. It can be really hard to capture a moment, but you have to be open to experimenting, and I feel like when you share your songs with other people and let your guard down, you can get more out of it.”
That’s just the kind of lesson Fred Short might have shared one night over drinks and a roaring fire on the land Benevento now calls home. And while Benevento may have already recorded the definitive story of Fred Short the man, he’s only just begun to write the story of Fred Short the studio. The musical possibilities there are endless, and if this album is any indication, the results will be no less legendary than its namesake.
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