Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Put Their Own Spin on the Grateful Dead

May 11th, 2015

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – the Capitol Theatre – May 9, 2015

(Photo: Scott Harris)

It feels like the Grateful Dead’s music is involved in a heavyweight fight this year, the 50-year-old repertoire fighting old age and inertia for another shot at the crown. While the main event remains July 4th weekend in Chicago, there’s already been plenty of excitement about the undercard. Perhaps no group has built up as much buzz and raves as the float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (affectionately known as JRAD). Saturday night at GD50’s East Coast HQ, the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., JRAD proved once again that they are a force to be reckoned with.

The quintet got things started with a mean uppercut to the jaw in the form of “Dancing in the Street.” In a bit of a surprise, Nicole Atkins immediately joined the band, as she would throughout the marathon show, adding a welcome Donna Jean–esque female touch to the vocals. That was great, but the crowd was eager for blood (or heavy jams), and the band obliged with some right-right-left jabbing from Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger on dueling guitars and Marco Benevento on keyboards. After an early set cooldown of “Dire Wolf” with Metzger debuting his new pedal-steel skills in the band, the first set turned leftward quickly. Beginning with “Cassidy,” Russo led his mates through a series of high-energy, how-did-we-get-here-and-how-do-we-get-back improvs. You can take your pick of highlights, from the weirdness-into-explosiveness of “St. Stephen” or the rocking beauty of “Eyes of the World.” Best bet might have been “Cassidy,” with its jam quickly dropping into a quiet, subtle thing, Dave Dreiwitz leading a particularly melodic front on bass until Russo slowly and triumphantly built up the band to a tremendous climax. The first set closed with a rocking “Not Fade Away,” the sweaty, wait-is-this-still-the-first-set crowd? joyfully singing along.

The second set was a single-entity dreamscape, every song leading into uncharted territory, the audience punch-drunk on long stretches of expert improvisation. The band was a lithe instrument, each member contributing equally, unrelentingly subverting the Dead catalog with their sweet science. While, yes, the music was rooted in the Grateful Dead repertoire—the meat of the set going something like “The Music Never Stopped” > “King Solomon’s Marbles” > “China Cat Sunflower” > “The Eleven” > “I Know You Rider” > “Morning Dew”—the jams were completely of Russo & Co.’s making, a unique and ecstatic sound increasingly independent of historical references. To single out one musician or song or jam is to say that it was the final punch that knocked him out instead of the 15 rounds of constant pounding that led up to it. Still … that “Morning Dew” was painstakingly beautiful and moving. The band led a joyous sing-along on “Ripple,” with Metzger back on pedal steel, Benevento on accordion, Atkins on vocals and everyone in the audience unanimously grinning like they’d just experienced the greatest beat down of their lives. —A. Stein | @Neddyo