Joe Russo’s Almost Dead—or JRAD as they are affectionately known—kicked of 2020 with a bang, playing three consecutive sold-out nights at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. The supergroup that came together by chance at Brooklyn Bowl nearly a decade ago features percussion powerhouse and band leader Joe Russo, as well as keyboard wizard Marco Benevento, American Babies guitarist/vocalist Tom Hamilton, Ween bassist Dean Dreiwitz, and guitarist/vocalist Scott Metzger, who performs with the instrumental trio WOLF! as well as being a regular collaborator with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Stanton Moore, and many others. JRAD performs renditions of Grateful Dead songs, as well as like-minded material from across a varied and informed spectrum of musical taste. For example, the group has been known to include covers of Springsteen, Neil Young, The Beatles, and Radiohead in their sets.
The Saturday, 2/22 show—the second of the three nights at the Cap—kicked off as JRAD shows often do: with a loose jam as the musicians assembled themselves and worked their way into the groove. Russo and Dreiwitz laid down a foundation, while Benevento, Hamilton, and Metzger each danced over the subtle yet steady beat, each musician finding small pockets and corners for them to create a build-up that ultimately evolved into an “Eyes of the World” jam. After some tight riffing on that song’s melody, Russo then signaled to the group, and on a dime, JRAD switched over to a rowdy rendition of “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Benevento’s right hand danced all over his keys, as he switched between grand and electric piano, as well as organ and a collection of synth effects. Hamilton’s quick picking and hearty vocal gave the performance plenty of bop, so much so that Metzger then got in on the action with some world-class soloing.
If the crowd wasn’t already on fire by then, “Hell in a Bucket,” from the Dead’s 1987 In the Dark LP, followed next and made certain the room would be scorching from that point forward. Metzger howled through his vocal like a wolf crying for the moon and riled the crowd up more and more with each refrain of “At least I’m enjoying the ride!” Hamilton, who often takes the lead vocal on songs typically sung by Jerry Garcia, then gave a sterling vocal performance on “Loser”—the first of two songs from Garcia’s self-titled solo LP; the second being “The Wheel,” which saw Russo, Hamilton, and Metzger sharing a three-part harmony with a beyond enthusiastic crowd.
Jazzy and spacey instrumental segments in between songs created clever passageways for JRAD to work through the remainder of the first set, which included the night’s first “cover”: a spirited and traditional working of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” with Metzger on vocals and a giddy Benevento repeatedly tearing through lines on his organ. The first set closed with an also very engaging version of “Uncle John’s Band.”
After a short break, JRAD returned to the stage for a second set that kicked off with a dynamite trio of “Estimated Prophet,” “Jack Straw,” and the evening’s second surprise: a version of The Band’s “Life Is a Carnival” (the last which probably hasn’t seen that much life and momentum since The Last Waltz.) On “Jack Straw,” the crowd was so hyped up that Russo and Benevento routinely nodded to each other to signal multiple refrains of the instrumental sections as the crowd danced in the aisles with euphoric delirium. Coming out of “Carnival” was Garcia’s “Cats Under the Stars,” a loopy and maddening rendition that saw Russo pounding out a stellar breakdown, riffing on the James Brown “Funky Drummer” beat before leading the group back into the main section of the tune. Other second set highlights included a spunky “Cumberland Blues” before closing with a rousing “Sugar Magnolia.” After a few short moments, JRAD returned for an encore of “Broken Arrow,” the 1987 Robbie Robertson track, with Dreiwitz on lead vocal.
While each musician is integral to the whole of JRAD, its spirit and power ultimately stem from the thunderous playing of its leader. Russo may very well be the most hard-rocking jazz drummer since Charlie Watts, and often times JRAD performances sound like the music of the Grateful Dead as performed by Led Zeppelin or the Stones. Those looking for untraditional renditions of the songs they love and seek an alternative to the more mainstream Dead & Company should move JRAD to the top of their list of must-see acts. (Here’s a tip: JRAD will be coming to the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ, on September 24-26; there’s still a few seats left for the 24th, so jump on them while they’re still available.)