The Duo, Topaz+Mudphonic bring polar opposite sounds to Charlotte

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The Duo/Topaz + Mudphonic
Visulite Theatre
Charlotte, North Carolina
September 11, 2008

On September 11, 2008, Charlotte was treated to an outstanding billing at the Visulite Theatre.  It had been quite some time for Benevento/Russo Duo to visit the Queen City and the first for supporting act, Topaz+Mudphonic. In a city that rarely shows support for live music on a weeknight, a good sized Visulite crowd found a warm Thursday night the perfect opportunity to kick off the weekend.

Peoply typically leave during the headliner’s set at weeknight shows in Charlotte, but on this night the crowd was content to hang around to the last call.  After the last notes rang out from Benevento/Russo Duo, many were still socializing with friends or raving about the Trinumeral Festival that had taken place a few weeks earlier.  Others were buzzing about the upcoming Mantra Bash Part Deux, a gathering featuring top local acts.  Still others were huddled around the merchandise table, trying to make contact, or at least get noticed by the members of the night’s opening band, Topaz + Mudphonic.  All of this unusual for a Thursday night crowd.

topaz1.jpgWith less than 30 minutes until Topaz + Mudphonic were scheduled to take the stage, the Visulite Theatre was quiet and nearly empty.  A few of Charlotte’s faithful live music lovers sat at the bar, seemingly more interested in the college football games on tv than the music that was about to start.  At first scan of the venue it seemed like this show was going to bomb.  The place was empty.  Lined up behind the dance floor, multiple tapers were already set up, front and center of the stage, and another was searching out band management for permission to record via soundboard.  Two video cameras were set up, one pointing towards stage left and the other stage right.  Although the room was not yet full, the Charlotte archivists were prepared for an evening of music that warranted their full attention.  This was a good sign of things to come…

Equipment packed the Visulite stage.  Bands with as many as 11 or 12 members have performed confortably on the Visulite stage but tonight it would be difficult for 6 to perform.  The Duo had so much gear that the opening band’s equipment was slid all the way to stage left.  It was packed tightly together, reminiscent of a young band practicing in a single car garage.  The Visulite is no small garage and it was soon abundantly clear that Topaz + Mudphonic are no garage band.

topaz2.jpgOnly minutes before Topaz + Mudphonic took the stage, the flood gates opened and bodies began filling the room.  House music lowered, drawing all attention on far stage left.  First to appear from behind the curtain was front man Topaz McGarrigle, donning his signature top hat.  Guitar player John Branch followed with black derby atop his own head, dressed in a white dress shirt and black slacks, looking straight out of A Clockwork Orange.  Next the rhythm section of drummer Alex Morrero and Bobby Perkins took their places on stage.  Both looking as sharp as the others, Perkins with the look of Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever.  These boys looked damn good on stage.

With the first notes of the opening song, ironically entitled "Take Yer Clothes Off," there was no doubt that they perform as well as they look.  Next was "Dirty Water," a swampy foot stomper featuring Topaz on the mouth harp.  Next in line was "Sunshine," a slow-paced but equally swampy ballad that drew howls from the ladies as Topaz flipped his guitar over his back to play a mean tenor sax solo.

By now the room was beginning to pack in.  Ladies were migrating onto the dance floor.  One fan, obviously intoxicated, took a musical break as her opportunity to shout out "Can I ask you something?"  Bobby Perkins (bass) answered with a smile, "Shoot."  She asked,  "Tell us about you.  Who are you, and where do you come from?" The charismatic front man replied "I’m Topaz.  They’re Mudphonic…. and we’re from Austin, TX."  The crowd erupted with approval for the band, as the young lady then apologized to the crowd for the annoyance, explaining that she had seen them in their hometown of Austin, TX and loved their music.

duo2.jpgHer enthusiasm was infectious, and obviously appreciated as Topaz + Mudphonic continued to blister the crowd with showmanship and funk-laced Texas blues rarely seen in Charlotte.  Midway through their set, Topaz invited either Marco Benevento or Joe Russo to join them on stage.  To every one’s surprise both musicians appeared from behind the curtain for a crowd pleasing cover of Led Zeppelin’s "Trampled Under Foot."  Benevento remained on stage to add his keyboard wizardry on "Lonely."  Topaz + Mudphonic continued with "Rollin," another foot stompin’ rocker that placed a bold exclamation point at the end of set.

With a buzz from the opener still filling the room, headliners The Benevento/ Russo Duo took the stage.  A large video screen with psychedelic imagery set the mood for the the single 90 minute set. 

The organ/drum duo of Marco Benevento (keys, bass, samples) and Joe Russo (drums, guitar, samples) have become renowned for capturing the essence of their complex and often experimental studio recordings during live performances.  Tonight was no exception.  Their musical performance was polished but what sets them apart is their stage show. Benevento/Russo Duo don’t rely on intelligent lighting to visually stimulate the listeners.  Instead they utilize psychedelic imagery cast upon a large video screen as a third member of the group. Often much of what is played on stage is synchronized with the images on the screen… or vice versa.  At times it is hard to tell.

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Early in the show, Russo stood in front of the video screen with his back to the crowd and arms outstretched as he shook maracas to the guttural sounds coming from Benevento’s Leslie.  Russo and his maracas were synchronous with the images on screen and with each shake the crowd responded with a roar. Later he stood up from his drum kit, walked behind a soloing Benevento, and began dancing, urging the crowd to do the same while a dancing image swayed on screen. Again they responded.  Kibitzing between the two was prolific throughout the set that consisted mostly of Duo standards like "Sunny’s Song," "Best Reason To Buy The Sun," and "Becky."

duo1.jpgThrough much of the performance, The Duo treated listeners with a mix of jazz-fused indie jams and psychedelic improvisations that rock hard.  It appeared that they were enjoying their mid-tour performance and the crowd loved every minute of it.   About mid-set, the Visulite crowd was caught off guard with a simple acoustic piece performed and written by Joe Russo, and at the time known only as "A New Acoustic Thing."  It was a refreshing break from the complexity of The Duo’s dance grooves and electric ear candy that come from the stage, which led one concert goer to question "Is that really only two people?"

The Duo seemed to effortlessly morph the Visulite into a cerebral dance experience when compared to the foot stompin’ party brought on earlier by Topaz + Mudphonic.  Both were equally enjoyable and both commanded the attention of the Thursday night crowd.  The music was well performed yet sounded from polar opposites, which made for an unusual and enjoyable night of music in Charlotte.

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