If you’ve been paying attention to the world of Dead bands at all in the last few years, you have probably heard of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. If you haven’t, boy are you in for a surprise! When Furthur disbanded, its drummer, Joe Russo, decided to form his own Dead band. He was already in a band with some of his friends called Bustle in Your Hedgerow that did instrumental takes on Led Zeppelin songs, so they took that lineup, added another guitarist, and called the new band Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. JRAD, as it is often called, is now the most unique take on the Dead’s music since Jerry’s death.
The band consists of Joe on drums, his longtime collaborator Marco Benevento on keys, Scott Metzger and Tommy Hamilton on guitar, and typically Dave Dreiwitz on bass; although, when he’s touring with Ween they get Jon Shaw to fill in. While JRAD plays mainly Grateful Dead songs, it doesn’t feel right to call them a tribute or even a cover band, because they have really created their own musical beast. Joe was always an unstoppable force in Furthur, and now he has his own band to really go nuts in. He’s taken on a singing role in a lot of songs, and he somehow manages to conduct the band while still drumming at full speed.
Joe’s conducting is more like guiding or reminding, because the rest of the band is so tight that they already know what Joe wants to do. Hamilton and Metzger swap lead and rhythm parts seamlessly and are constantly daring each other to go further, while Dave absolutely holds the bottom end on lockdown. Marco and Joe had their own duo back in the day (they announced their reunion in the middle of me writing this!), and the chemistry between them is more like alchemy. I thought that Chimenti and Russo could lock minds perfectly, but the levels Benevento and Russo reach together go beyond simple telepathy; it makes you wonder if they really are two separate people or just halves of the same musical coin.
Having great musicians isn’t what makes JRAD so unique in the world of the Dead; plenty of bands have great players! Their unique quality stems from their approach to the Dead’s song catalogue. The lyrics are always the same, and some songs are played like the Dead played them, but these guys take playing with the borders and definitions of songs to unprecedented levels. I don’t just mean that they go from one song into another, they open up the songs’ jam sections and even add new ones in unexpected and exciting ways. They also throw in teases of other songs so effortlessly; even when they’re playing for their lives on the edge of a collapsing star they find time to throw in a “Friend of the Devil” tease, or a quote from “Bitches Brew.” Marco, especially, seems to have a catalogue of songs ready at his fingertips that he can throw in at a moment’s notice to augment a song.
Because they frequently find themselves on the edge of a collapsing star, or in some similar metaphysical predicament, they have had to learn to keep absolute control over the music, while simultaneously letting it evolve naturally. They follow the music wherever it takes them, and hit so many different levels as they go. While they can play in any number of styles (country, blues rock, outer space minimalism), their most powerful ability is to ramp up a jam higher and higher until everyone’s heads explode, and then just stay at that level. I’ve lost track of the number of times they’ve hit a peak that I thought was unsustainable for more than a few bars, only to watch them somehow to get even higher while getting further and further out. Joe must be powered by some sort of cosmic radiation, because no mere mortal should be able to do the things he does to drums for as long as he does them.
The song combinations they come up with are incredibly inventive, too! Here is a recording (tracklist error in “Scarlet > Fire,” “Fire” starts much earlier than is listed) of the most recent show of theirs I saw at the Paradise in Boston (11/28/2015), and take a look at the setlist below:
First Set: Bertha > Throwing Stones > Black Peter > Estimated Prophet > The Weight > Scarlet Begonias > Fire on The Mountain
Second Set: Jam > Here Comes Sunshine > Feel Like a Stranger > Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Jack-a-Roe > Cumberland Blues
Encore: One More Saturday Night, Shakedown Street
The sets look really short, but all of these songs are stretched out from their typical lengths -- “Throwing Stones” and “Here Comes Sunshine” are both over twenty minutes long! “Throwing Stones” is a perfect showcase of Marco’s ability to pull a tune from thin air that sounds at once unique and hauntingly familiar. The way they played “Feel Like a Stranger > Help on the Way” made it sound like that was always the traditional transition, and also makes me feel like it would work the other way, “Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Feel Like a Stranger”!
One of the best things about JRAD is that they play small, intimate venues, so you’re always right in the middle of the action. This also keeps the prices down in the $20 range, which is awesome! As much as I love seeing Phil and Dead & Company, only Bill Walton can afford to shell out the money for all of those shows; and he’s weirdly tall and plays a silly sport, so how seriously can we really take him?
JRAD also provides high quality recordings and videos of their performances. Their Youtube channel posts HD videos of songs or pairings of songs just about every week, and they have a good amount of soundboard and matrix recordings on the Archive. There aren’t any soundboards of their Boston shows, which is a travesty, so feel free to join me in demanding them from the powers that be (some guy name Costello). Not only do they provide excellent snapshots of their music, they also post critically annotated setlists on their Facebook. Check out their version of the show I was at in Boston:
Set 1 (9:31pm - 10:55pm ish)
Bertha (TH) >
Throwing Stones @ (SM) >
Black Peter (TH) ->
Estimated Prophet # (SM) ->
The Weight $ (see notes) >
Scarlet Begonias % (TH) ->
Fire On The Mountain % (TH)
Set 2 (11:22pm - 12:53am ish)
Here Comes Sunshine ^ (TH) ->
Feel Like A Stranger & (SM) >
Help On The Way (TH) ->
Jack A Roe (TH) ->
Cumberland Blues & (All)
One More Sat Night (SM)
E: Shakedown St * (TH)
@ MB def jammed on a very familiar theme in this one, but I can’t ID it yet
# With Shakedown Street Teases (Band)
$ First Time Played, The Band original. TH sung verse 1, SM sung verse 2, MB sung verse 3, JR sung verse 4 & All sung verse 5 & the choruses.
% With a China->Rider Transition Tease during the transition b/t Scarlet->Fire
& With a Duo Jam
* With Feel Like A Stranger Jams from MB & then TH
(As a refresher: use of a “>” means no pause between tunes, but no transitional jam between them either. For tunes with a jam at the foundation of the transition, I use “->” to note it.)
Now, I have some issues with this: the “^” symbol is not identified; I don’t hear a “China/Rider” tease out of “Scarlet”; “Saturday Night” was definitely part of the encore, not the second set; there’s definitely a “Slipknot!” tease by Marco in “Shakedown.” But ultimately, I really do love that they do this for us, and these are just the critiques of a nit-picking fan (Picky Dead Heads, amirite?). These posts do a lot to help put the show back together in my memory, and they make it easier to imagine the shows I wasn’t lucky enough to go to myself. There’s a bit of a “spoiler alert” factor for shows you haven’t listened to yet, but that just means don’t look at the annotated setlist before listening to the show!
So that’s that, though there is still a lot worth talking about. So let me know what you think in the comments, and we can talk all about it! Do you think Joe's hair is too floppy? Does Scott have one of the best guitar-faces of all time? Who can jump higher: Tommy or Scott (Marco didn't know when I asked him)?? Also, let me know what you want to hear about next time, or just share something fun; that’s why we’re all here, to have fun, right? Actually, next time I think I might do a look-back at the Dave’s Picks series, leading up to Dave’s Picks 18, which is on its way right now! So also let me know what you think about all that great stuff. You can follow this blog on Twitter and Facebook , and you can also follow me in real life, but that would be creepy.
P.S.: While I was finishing this up on Sunday, Jeff Chimenti sat in with JRAD for two nights over the weekend, and you can listen to pretty good recordings (I listened to only a minute or two of each, they just posted a bit ago) of night one and night two. This, however, has set off a cavalcade of conspiracy theorists and detectives all shouting: “FURTHUR REUNION!” Not only have Jeff and Joe now played together, but this past week Bob Weir sat in with The John Kadlecik Band. And then, Bob sat in with Phil this weekend! So someone go grab Sunshine and Jeff P, we’ll sit these guys all down, and we can find some dates that will work for all of them! I know they’re all very busy, but when you really think about it, don’t we deserve this just a little bit? Don’t we all want to live in a world with both Furthur AND Dead & Company?! #FurthurReunion , let's go!