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Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at Brooklyn Bowl
Photo by Vernon Webb
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead
Even before Jerry’s passing, the Grateful Dead cover band was already a ubiquitous feature of most major metropolitan areas, not to mention hippie enclaves like Burlington or Boulder. Since 1995, a veritable industry has sprung up around playing the music of the Dead, anchored by the endeavors of the surviving members of the band. To that end, the assembly of Led Zeppelin cover band Bustle In Your Hedgerow with Tom Hamilton, wearing the moniker Joe Russo’s Almost Dead suggests a promising, though not necessarily unique, exploration into well-worn territory. What the band delivered however was surprising and satisfyingly faithful performance in the spirit of the Grateful Dead.
While everyone in the band carries an extensive jamband pedigree, none of the members, aside from Russo, whose main gig these days is with Bobby and Phil in Furthur, are known for any close tie to the Dead’s music. Instead, you have a band comprised of well-seasoned sidemen and jamband-leaders delivering their take on a sacred catalog of music. What makes this group stand out is their commitment to playing like the Dead as a band, as opposed to their individual parts. Sure, Dave Dreiwitz may be playing more notes than usual, and Hamilton may be running an envelope filter on his guitar, but it never felt as if anyone in the band was copying their instrumental counterpart. Instead, the musicians focused on maintaining the openness and freedom of the Dead’s approach to performance, bolstering the attention with their significant abilities on their instruments. Scott Metzger’s guitar playing was muscular and raucous as ever, Hamilton’s playing in contrast was imbued with his typical melodic explorations, Dreiwitz maintained his always-solid bass work even while playing twice his usual number of notes, and when things were really cooking, it could have easily been a Benevento Russo Duo show with how Marco and Joe played off of each other, trading licks and smiles.
This varied combination could easily have led to something more along the lines of Marco and Joe’s old Knitting Factory shows (Come On Falcon anyone?), but instead the band embraced the context of playing the Dead’s music for a Dead crowd. The first set was a tour through classic Dead favorites, with an end sequence running from “Tennessee Jed” > “Shakedown Street” > “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider,” with a sublime jam positioned between the Shakedown and China Cat. This is where the group really demonstrated their commitment to not only the music they were playing, but also the band that originally played it. Still without abandoning their individual characters as musicians, the band went in to deep outer space, in a way that really on Russo has previously demonstrated an inclination to explore, genuinely capturing the vibe the Dead sought to create every night on stage. The transition out of the jam and in to “China Cat” showcased the sheer power of the assembled group of musicians, still carrying that floaty vibe from the preceding jam while throwing down a strong and authoritative finish to the set. Aside from the authenticity with which they manipulated the music, their pure capability as musicians really shone through on this sequence.
The second set was, as expected, a jammier affair, though at the same time the more open nature of the set allowed greater shades of Ween and The Duo to appear. The “Eyes Of The World” that followed the “Estimated Prophet” opener may be one of the best versions of that song ever played without Jerry. Given the technical abilities of the band members, the “Help>Slip>Franklin’s” combo was expected, emerging from the post-Eyes “Drums,” yet it resulted in one of the very few messy bits in the band’s performance. While the tunes were delivered with competence, the transitions between, and the “Slipknot” in general, were muddy and lacking in common direction. The following run from “St. Stephen” > “The Eleven” > “The Other One” > “Viola Lee Blues” more than redeemed the set though, with even deeper explorations in to the open space allowed by the compositions.
While this may have been intended as a one-off, the crowd reaction and subsequent online attention suggest that a return performance would be warmly welcomed.
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