PhilRAD – Capitol Theatre – December 29, 2014
About 80 minutes into their first set last night at the Capitol Theatre, PhilRAD finally paused and the audience let out a collective sigh that was easily translated to “What just happened!?” The band—consisting of four-fifths of the upstart Grateful Dead cover outfit Joe Russo’s Almost Dead with Phil Lesh leading the way on bass—had just opened their sold-out three-night run with a twisted jam-filled expedition that on paper looked like “Truckin’” > “Jack Straw” > “Estimated Prophet” > “Eyes of the World” > “Crazy Fingers” > “King Solomon’s Marbles.” It was like watching a kid get a new bike with training wheels for Christmas and in the course of an hour or so go from wobbly beginner to look-ma-no-hands to X Games medalist. The stretch was full of highlights: Russo on drums cracked open the jam in “Truckin’” like an egg as Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger played a runny-yolk two-guitar jam; Marco Benevento led a glorious jam in “Jack Straw” on the grand piano; five guys seemingly played at five different tempos but all somehow fit together in a feeling-out-each-other-moment in “Estimated”; Metzger crafting a peak-upon-peak solo in “Eyes”; and, of course, Lesh playing the adult in the room with his beautiful, exploratory bass playing. If it was sloppy at times, the music seemed to benefit: This material longs for looseness and the surprises that come with imperfection.
Everyone had a moment to shine, individually and in the group dynamic. Russo was in fine form, a firm hand on the back of the bicycle seat that knew exactly when to let go and when to rein in things. A first-set highlight was the jam out of “Crazy Fingers,” which under Russo’s guidance went free then beautiful then funk-rave until finally crashing into “King Solomon’s Marbles.” The crowd reveled in each moment that was half nostalgia, half groundbreaking. There were sing-alongs for their old favorites and revelations at new discoveries in decades-old material that lurked unknowingly beneath the surface.
The second set, which alternated between straight-up guitar rocking, out-there space-drifts and shall-we-dance? grooving, was somehow even looser, and the surprising second song could sum it up. “Throwing Stones” formed out of a free-flowing underwater jam lead by Benevento that finally coalesced around the up-tempo theme. Metzger, sounding every bit like Bob Weir on vocals, led the crowd in a fist-pumping sing-along before turning in on Russo for a climactic, crowd-pleasing guitar solo. After another verse, Lesh and Hamilton bounced on a theme that as much Sly and the Family Stone as the Dead, which Russo somehow brought back for a short bit before things went into space-funk-fusion for an unexpected segue into “Dark Star.” That tune was a platform for some of the most inventive exploring of the night, ceding way to a raging-under-the-red-lights cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” plus a jam-fueled “The Wheel.” Sure, they occasionally lost track of where they dropped the breadcrumbs along the way, but that was OK, Lesh or Russo eventually brought them back to where they began. PhilRAD rounded out the superlative set list with “Terrapin Station” > “I Know You Rider” before encoring with a heavy-boogie version of “Shakedown Street,” white lights whirling around the Cap like the band had set off a fire alarm. As great as the show was, there was a definitive just-getting-warmed-up feeling in the room. Two more nights of jams, surprises and, I’m sure, people in the crowd looking at each other wondering, “What just happened!?” —A. Stein | @Neddyo