The Bengsons Bring Vaudeville to Canal Street Tavern
By Matt Clevenger
It was a chance meeting in New York City that gave birth to husband and wife folk-rock duo the Bengsons and their story reads like a scene straight out of a Broadway musical.
“We actually met because we were playing in somebody else’s band together,” Abigail Nessen Bengson explained recently. “It was a side project. We had never been alone in a room together or played music privately, and the first time we did that – that’s when we fell in love.”
“About two weeks later we decided to get married,” she added. “Then we hit the road. We just sort of went off and did our own thing and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Their “thing” is an eclectic mix of folk, rock and theatre known as vaudevillian indie-folk, and the couple has already received praise from many well-known publications for their original songwriting and unique live shows. “Not only a tremendous musical talent,” the New York Times said about the duo recently, “but also a raw honesty and sincere righteousness.”
“Downright enchanting,” the Addison Independent said of their live shows. “Audiences are bound to sit up and take notice.”
Bengson and her husband, Shaun McClain Bengson, are both veteran performers and their modern take on classic vaudeville and cabaret draws from many diverse influences. “Shaun and I both grew up playing music,” she said. “When he went to college, he studied ethnomusicology. He spent a year in Japan and also played in an awesome local folk-punk band.”
“When I was about three years old, I joined a sort of traveling theatre company,” she added. “I was playing music and performing up until I went to college. Then I started to earn my living doing hip-hop in New York City and that’s when Shaun and I met.”
The duo has deep ties to the Dayton area and Thursday’s show at Canal Street Tavern will also be a homecoming of sorts for the couple. Shaun Bengson grew up in Dayton and both Bengsons also have a long history of working with local theatre companies. A skilled actress, Abigail was given the 2010 Breakout Female Performance in a Musical award by the Dayton City Paper for her portrayal of Mimi in Encore Theater Company’s production of RENT.
“I was born in Middlebury, Vt., but Shaun’s really a Dayton boy,” Bengson said. “That’s why we care so much about this show at Canal Street. It’s a homecoming for us.”
Performing as the Bengsons, the couple has developed an international following and issued two critically acclaimed, self-produced releases (“Zombie Nationalists #1” and “Six Hours”). Their third album, “The Proof,” is officially scheduled for release this February and is already available online.
“’The Proof’ is our baby,” Bengson said. “We took our time in the studio to create something really lush and thick. The sound is really ornate this time, whereas our first two albums were basically like live shows that we recorded, and all of the tracks are uncut, which is beautiful, and we love it, but this one we really wanted to invest as much time as we could into making it just what we wanted it to be.”
In conjunction with “The Proof,” the duo is also working to produce an opera of the same name. “The opera is also called ‘The Proof,’” Bengson said. “Some of the tunes from the opera are on the album. It’s about a young couple who fall in love and then find out that one of them has a terminal illness. Rather than try to fight the year he has left, they decide to live the one year they have together as if it were 60 years they would have had.”
“It deals with death and it deals with illness,” she added. “But it’s very much about their celebrating life in a short amount of time, and living adventurously and lovingly at every moment. It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done … it’s a really ambitious project and we’re working with this really cutting-edge video artist out of New York City named Andrew Lazarow.”
In addition to writing and recording, the Bengsons also maintain a busy touring schedule, performing their unique stage shows in countries all over the world. Activists as well as musicians, the duo also tries to perform some sort of community service in every location where they play a show. “Wherever we play, we also try to do something in the community,” Bengson said.
“Our travels have brought us to some kind of crazy places,” she explained. “We spent some time at an orphanage in Tijuana working with some young people there, which was really an experience for us. The year before that we were in South Africa working with a really amazing group of young people who are making art there.”
For 2011, the Bengsons have planned residencies in Seattle and New York City to finish producing their opera and a European tour is also in the works. The duo is currently preparing for a 30-city U.S. tour and Thursday’s appearance at Canal Street will be a special tour kick-off show featuring a full backing band. “We’re doing a big-band show for Canal Street,” Bengson said. “Usually we tour on our own, but for this show we’re bringing in a group of incredible musicians to play with us.”
The Bengsons will appear Thursday, Nov. 20 at Canal Street Tavern with opening act Walk the Moon. Tickets are $5 at the door; show starts at 9 p.m., doors open at 8 p.m. More information can be found online at www.bengsons.com or www.canalstreettavern.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Clevenger at firstname.lastname@example.org