Chad Browne-Springer of Phat A$tronaut held the microphone in his hand and looked out across the crowded house at Cafe Nine on Tuesday night. People were laughing and chatting, but Browne-Springer had something to say.
“Tonight I feel heavy,” he said. The room began to quiet down. “A lot of members of this band and a lot of people in this audience lost a friend. So if he could, just raise a glass for Justin.”
Browne-Springer meant Justin Bencivengo, who died on Sept. 18 at the age of 30 in Asheville, N.C., when he “succumbed to his long battle with drug addiction,” as his family wrote in an obituary for him. “Showing strength, determination and excitement, he completed an intense rehab program and began to rebuild his life while living and working in the Asheville area drug-free for the past seven months before his sudden relapse last week, ending his fight.”
Bencivengo grew up in West Haven and established himself on the local hip hop scene shortly after graduating high school in 2007. As Jus and Company, he released several recordings between 2010 and 2014. In Asheville, according to his Facebook page, he had been a behavioral health technician at Tapestry, a center treating people suffering from eating disorders and other mental health issues; a counselor at Under One Sky Village Foundation, an organization providing services for children in foster care; and a behavioral health technician at Mountainview Recovery, an addiction recovery center.
As the size of the crowd on Tuesday attested, Bencivengo’s mark on the New Haven music scene was deep. The crowd began to arrive shortly after the club opened its doors and the Hartford-based Donnie Alexzander took the stage. Backed by Austin Flynn on drums and T.J. Croke on bass, Alexzander offered affable rock originals filled with changes in texture, tempo, and meter that caught the ear.
“We’re listening, dog, and we need more!” someone called from the audience early in the set.
“We got a hyped crowd,” Alexzander said. “I like it!”
“Hell, yeah!” someone yelled back.
The band ended its set with a song that swerved into an almost Middle Eastern modality and ended in heavy, distorted guitar — and a round of applause.
The Chicago-based Cordoba — Brianna Tong on vocals, Cam Cunningham on guitar, Khalyle Hagood on bass, Zach Upton-Davis on drums, Eric Novak on vocals and saxophone, and Zach Bain-Selbo on keyboards — brought their blend of jazz, funk, and hip hop to a welcoming stage.
“We’ve only been here for two hours but it seems cool,” Tong said. “Y’all seem chill.”
Together, Cunningham, Novak, and Bain-Selbo could create a thick atmosphere, while Upton-Davis and Hagood morphed from rhythm to rhythm and Tong rode every wave. The band rose from quiet and smoky to just plain smoking, easily wedding jazz melodies and harmonies to hip hop-inflected grooves, with just enough freakiness to add an element of surprise.
“Thanks so much to Cafe Nine for having us — this is great,” Tong said toward the end of the band’s set.
“We love you!” someone shouted from the audience.
“Awwww,” Tong said. “We love you, too.” The only apparent problem with Cordoba’s set was that it was too short. Tong announced the band’s last number. The audience demanded one more. Cordoba obliged.
After Browne-Springer spoke, Phat A$tronaut began its set with some of its own material. The six-piece — Browne-Springer on vocals, Mark Lyon on guitar, Mike Russo on bass, Dylan McDonnell on flute and saxophone, Mike Knobloch on percussion, Stephen Gritz King on keys, and Tim Walsh on drums — showed why it continues to pull an audience for its utterly danceable and thought-provoking sets. But this night the band had more than usual on its mind.
“This last week has been real tough for a lot of people in this room,” Lyon said. “We got Justin’s family in the building. We got Justin’s friends in the building.” Lyon went on to say that he was open to getting together with anyone who was feeling the loss, who needed to talk, who just needed some company. “We love you so much, Justin. We miss you so much.”
Lyon went on to explain that a few of the members of Phat A$tronaut had been members of Jus and Company, backing up Bencivengo when he performed his own original material. A microphone had already been set up on the floor. Lyon said that Phat A$tronaut would play some of Bencivengo’s music; among the MCs in the house, if any wanted to jump up and perform Bencivengo’s verses or their own, they could.
Bencivengo’s friends — among them Mr. Council and Sotorios Fedeli of Political Animals — took up the invitation. Together, they traded bars while the crowd drew in close.
As the band finished up its last Bencivengo number, another audience member jumped up and led the crowd through the chorus to one of Bencivengo’s songs a cappella.
As Browne-Springer said earlier, “in the crazy world we live in, take care of each other, because the community we build is all we have.” Now, as the band had paid its homage, Browne-Springer looked at his fellow musicians.
“OK, let’s party on, yeah?” Walsh answered with a fill from his drums. The rest of the band dropped in, and the music went on.
A memorial service for Bencivengo will be held today, Sept. 25, at 10 a.m., immediately followed by a visitation time with the family from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Vertical Church, 225 Meloy Rd., in West Haven. The family welcomes all who knew him to attend.