Five years ago today Furthur drummer Joe Russo assembled four of his musical friends for what was supposed to be a one-time gig as part of NYC tastemaking e-mail list the Freaks List’s annual Freaks Ball celebration. Russo was charged with covering the music of the Grateful Dead and recruited his Bustle In Your Hedgerow band mates guitarist Scott Metzger, bassist Dave Dreiwitz and keyboardist Marco Benevento as well as a musician more familiar with the GD repertoire – guitarist Tom Hamilton. Joe called the group Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and by the time the quintet left the stage both those in the audience and those on stage realized something special had happened.
JRAD took many of the songs they played on that fateful evening to ground never covered by any other Grateful Dead tribute act, or band in general for that matter, and the audience really appreciated it. The vibe leaving the venue was of “did that just happen?” As mentioned in the tweet above, it became clear right away keeping Joe Russo’s Almost Dead as a one-time performance would be a disservice to music fans.
JamBase recently spoke with Tom Hamilton what Joe Russo’s Almost Dead means to him and the intention behind what the five-piece is trying to accomplish:
I feel a responsibility. Man, I am so lucky. That gig (JRAD) is insane, it’s an insane gig. We know what that gig is, we know what we’re doing. There’s no “swinging dick” attitude. We didn’t write those songs, we didn’t live that life – that’s not us. We’re a vehicle, we’re a conduit to keep that going and we do that because we love those guys (the surviving members of the Grateful Dead). We all know those dudes, we’ve all played with those guys and we all respect and love them so much. What we’re doing is for them. These guys get to know that their legacy is in the hands of people who give a fuck and not a bunch of dudes that just want to make a living. It has nothing to do with that.
We want to make sure this catalog, which is basically a living document, keeps going in the right direction, in the way they meant it to be. It’s never about what has happened before, it’s not about imitation it’s about innovation. Moving it forward, that’s the thing. If you want to honor somebody you don’t sound like them, you do the opposite of them. You try to push things and go. Imitation is not the biggest form of flattery, that’s bullshit! To sit there and try to be somebody else is not art, it’s artifice, it’s fucking stupid, it’s a waste of time. Go become an accountant and don’t clog the highways. Because there are people on the road that want to be doing this for the right reasons. Nobody needs another bunch of assholes doing something that’s already been done. [The members of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead] know that. We all know that we’re lucky to get to do this and that it’s not ours. We’re just carrying it on until somebody else takes it.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead has now played 137 more shows, which is unbelievable considering in the 18 months following their debut the quintet had performed just two additional times. In late 2014 Russo & Co. started putting their foot on the gas and 2015 was the group’s first truly busy year. However, at the end of that year it appeared JRAD was about to be put out to pasture. Thankfully, 2016 and 2017 saw Almost Dead play a healthy mix of festival gigs and headlining performances with more of the same scheduled for 2018. That said, the members of the band put their original music first and have spent plenty of time over the past five years playing with their own groups such as Hamilton’s American Babies (and the forthcoming Ghost Light), Metzger’s WOLF!, Dreiwitz in Ween (a post he’s held for more than 20 years), Marco fronting his own trio and Russo with a variety of projects.
Here’s a look at some of what I wrote about JRAD’s 2013 debut:
For the last three-plus years Joe Russo has been discovering the music of the Grateful Dead from an interesting position: behind the drumkit of the Phil Lesh and Bob Weir-fronted Furthur. Russo admits to not being very familiar with the Dead’s songbook when he got the call to play drums in Furthur, but after all this time he’s up to speed. With that in mind he recruited four of his best friends to play two sets of Dead covers this past Saturday night at Brooklyn Bowl as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
With Almost Dead we got a chance to see how the music of the Grateful Dead would sound if Russo called all the shots. For the gig, which was part of this year’s Freaks Ball, the drummer recruited keyboardist Marco Benevento, guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger and bassist Dave Dreiwitz. Outside of Hamilton, those in Almost Dead make up the Led Zeppelin tribute act Bustle In Your Hedgerow. From the time the quintet took the stage it was clear a lot of thought and more importantly practice went into the debut of Almost Dead. These guys absolutely nailed nearly everything they played. You don’t play a perfect version of “The Eleven,” as they did, without running through it a dozen times.
Not only were the renditions of the composed sections spot-on, but the jams were wild and adventurous. It was as if the late ’60s “Primal Dead” tackled tunes from throughout the Grateful Dead’s career. Unlike Bustle, Almost Dead featured vocals with Hamilton, Russo and Metzger capably handling that task as even the harmonies were sweet. There was a rawness and energy to the band’s playing that was unlike any Dead cover band I’ve ever heard. In this day and age it’s tough to find consensus on anything, yet everyone I’ve talked to who witnessed the quintet’s debut had the same take I did – two otherworldly sets of music that stand as one of the best post-Jerry performances of the Grateful Dead’s music. Every bold statement you can think of can apply to Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, but now you don’t need to take my word for it as a recording has surfaced.
Next up for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is a Midwest run spanning February 15 – 18.
Listen to a soundboard matrix recording of the first show thanks to Pete Costello, Justin Ripley and Justin Marinoff:
Set One: Bertha, Althea, Jack Straw, Deal > Mr. Charlie, Brown-Eyed Women, Tennessee Jed > Shakedown Street > China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
Set Two: Estimated Prophet > Eyes of the World > Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower, St. Stephen > The Eleven > The Other One > Viola Lee Blues
Encore: U.S. Blues
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- Live Oak, FL