Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Knighted At Brooklyn Bowl
The year is 2001 and the famed hippie nightclub Wetlands Preserve owned at the time by young impresario Peter Shapiro is in its final months. Among the bands playing the iconic Tribeca venue in those last days are Brothers Past with its intense guitarist/vocalist Tom Hamilton leading the charge, a new group called “The Duo” featuring Fat Mama drummer Joe Russo and his old schoolmate keyboardist Marco Benevento of The Jazz Farmers as well as Talking Heads-esque rockers RANA from New Jersey and its ridiculously talented guitarist Scott Metzger. Fifteen years later, the four musicians mentioned – as well as bassist Dave Dreiwitz who was no stranger to the Wetlands stage starting with Tiny Lights in 1993 – have helped Shapiro keep the spirit of Wetlands alive at his Brooklyn Bowl venue with the development of their Joe Russo’s Almost Dead tribute to the Grateful Dead. JRAD made its debut at Brooklyn Bowl on January 26, 2013 and last night played their ninth show at the Williamsburg bowling alley/rock club, where Shapiro took an opportunity at the end of the evening to “knight” the quintet.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s three-night stand at Brooklyn Bowl between Thursday and Saturday nights came in celebration of another NYC jamband institution, the tastemaking NYC-Freaks e-mail list as the shows were billed as Freaks Ball XVI. The vibe of the Wetlands could be felt throughout the run, but never more so than at the start of Saturday’s encore. Shapiro took to a microphone on the stage at his venue and presented the five-piece with a sword that had the date of the band’s debut engraved on it and used said sword to officially knight each member of JRAD. Peter led the crowd in a refrain of, “We, The freaks Of Brooklyn Bowl, hereby anoint Dave, Scott, Tommy, Marco, And Sir Joe Russo as Knights, Birthed at the Bowl & and dedicated to Rock & Fucking Roll.” The ceremony came 15 years after Wetlands booker Jake Szufnarowski first knighted “Sir” Joe Russo at the now-defunct venue in 2001.
Russo and his mates showed why they deserved the honor of being knighted throughout their two-set performance at Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday. Unlike past nights, JRAD hit the stage and started “Big Railroad Blues” instead of using a jam as a prelude to their first song. The band then worked up a full head of steam before transitioning into their first-ever “Mason’s Children” (though four members of the group and Phil Lesh played the late ’60s Dead classic at one of 2014’s PhilRAD shows). “Mason’s” hadn’t sounded so powerful in the hands of any other act since the Grateful Dead themselves. Russo performed like a beast unleashed as he pounded away at his kit in a way that made you wonder if his drums would survive the onslaught. It was then time for a bit of a breather as the band brought out electric violinist Katie Jacoby of Zappa tribute act The Ed Palermo Big Band for a Hamilton-sung “Friend Of The Devil.” Almost Dead is a band known for creative interpretations of the music of the Grateful Dead and that creativity is also found in their selection of special guests. Jacoby was a fantastic addition as she shredded away on her fretted, electric violin. Unfortunately, at times it was hard to pick out her handiwork from the sound mix.
Following Katie’s first appearance, JRAD embarked on a rollicking jam they used to start up “I Know You Rider.” The five-piece extended each and every part of the traditional song with Benevento’s fierce Rhodes solo standing out as one of the highlights of the night. It seemed as if everyone in the capacity crowd was singing along or at least pumping their fists in the air along with the lyrics of “Rider.” Joe Russo’s Almost Dead soon broke through the normal “Rider” progression for a spacey jam that gave way to “St. Stephen.” I attended the show with a handful of friends who had never seen the band before and it was during “St. Stephen” that they truly “got it” and became the latest to hop on the JRAD train. While I’ve had mixed results turning friends on to other jam acts, every friend with a passion for the Dead I’ve brought to an Almost Dead performance has jumped fully on board. At the first JRAD show in 2013 “St. Stephen” embodied the band’s aggressive and inventive approach and the Primal Dead classic continues to be a song Russo and his mates absolutely crush. Last night was no exception and the band sent the crowd into hysterics when they transitioned into the “Terrapin Transit” portion of the “Terrapin Station” suite. Jacoby came back out to help JRAD finish the “Terrapin” they had performed with horns one night early to the delight of the audience.
Five sizzling sets in, you’d think it would be hard for the quintet to raise the bar even higher yet that’s just what they did as Saturday’s second set was the best of the bunch. The closing stanza began with a free-form jam led by Dreiwitz, a bassist who truly is the secret weapon of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Dave, best known for his work with Ween, held down the bottom end throughout the night with an in-the-pocket approach that is vastly different from the way Phil Lesh handles his role. The bassist’s solid and steady work allows his mates to blast off into space while knowing there will always be a steady landing ahead. Eventually, the band kicked into Bob Weir’s “Cassidy” with Metzger absolutely nailing the vocals. An example of Dreiwitz’s importance came as part of the mind-blowing “Cassidy” jam as Metzger, Russo, Hamilton and Benevento were each going for it and soloing at the same time while Dave held down the bottom end. When the quintet roared into the end of “Cassidy” the audience went ape shit.
The magic continued with a beautiful rendition of “The Wheel” that featured portions of “Joeline” from Hamilton’s American Babies project within. JRAD’s major-key, blissful jam out of “The Wheel” was a Phish-y treasure that should provide high replay value for years to come. A tender “He’s Gone” came next and led into a hearty reggae groove. Almost Dead telegraphed a transition into “Estimated Prophet” which had the crowd howling with delight. The band’s loose but intense interpretation of “Estimated Prophet” is another winner in the JRAD repertoire. Just as the group had its fill of “Estimated,” the guitarists kicked into “Eyes Of The World.” Unlike other parts of the evening, Dreiwitz went full-on Lesh by playing “lead bass” throughout and serving up a bass solo. Both Metzger and Hamilton delivered impressive solos before a segue into a set-closing “The Music Never Stopped.” Just as with “Cassidy” and “The Wheel,” JRAD went on an adventurous excursion before finishing “The Music Never Stopped” in style. As mentioned, venue owner Peter Shapiro came out at the start of the encore to knight the band ahead of the expected “One More Saturday Night” encore. Fifteen years after Wetlands closed, the venue’s history is still paying dividends for jam fans.
Setlist (Compiled by Pete Costello)
Set One: Big Railroad Blues (TH) -> Mason’s Children @ (All), Friend Of The Devil # (TH) , I Know Your Rider (All) > Space -> St Stephen (All) -> Terrapin Suite PT 2 #$ (JR)
Set Two: Jam > Cassidy (SM), The Wheel (All) -> Joeline % -> The Wheel Reprise (All) -> He’s Gone (TH) -> Estimated Prophet (SM) -> Eyes Of The World (TH) -> The Music Never Stopped (SM)
Encore: “Knighting Ceremony” &, One More Saturday Night (SM)
- @ – First Time Played by Almost Dead. PhilRAD played it at the Cap.
- # – With Katie Jacoby ~ Violin
- $ – From “Terrapin Transit” to the end. Finishes the 2016.03.15 version. With an unknown tease (MB)
- % – First Time Played, American Babies Original, only the refrain was sung.
- & – Before the encore, Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro took the stage, & presented the band with an sword engraved with the date of their first gig (2013-01-26 at Brooklyn Bowl) and made the legendary knighting of Joe Russo (http://www.sirjoerusso.com/) official. Shapiro named them Brooklyn Bowl Royalty as follows “We, The freaks Of Brooklyn Bowl, hereby anoint Dave, Scott, Tommy, Marco, And Sir Joe Russo as Knights, Birthed at the Bowl & and dedicated to Rock & Fucking Roll”. Props to Jake Szufnarowski for his invaluable role
Tour Dates for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead
- Atlanta, GA
- 3 days • Apr 24 - 26, 2020
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at SweetWater 420 FestOysterheadTrey Anastasio BandGary Clark Jr.
Exact performance date not yet confirmed.