WORDS/PHOTOS BY ANDREW BRUSS
Last Friday Joe Russo’s Almost Dead dished out two sets of Grateful Dead material to a sold out crowd at Boston’s House of Blues that managed to serve justice to the source material while simultaneously paying homage to the personal history that brought the members of this tribute group together. While JRAD features members of acts ranging from RANA to American Babies, drummer Joe Russo is the spine of the quintet and his connection to Marco Benevento (keyboards) goes back deeper and farther than even bassist Dave Dreiwitz’s membership in Ween.
Joe and Marco’s friendship goes back to their adolescent years in New Jersey, and they both made themselves known on the live music circuit by partnering together as the Benevento/Russo Duo. Since The Duo first started making the rounds in the early 00’s, both players have been a part of more projects than we can name, but for the first time, during their Boston performance, JRAD fused some Duo compositions into some of the spacier Dead jams of the night. The Duo will be playing their first proper concerts together in a number of years in just a few short weeks onboard Jam Cruise 15, and it appears they’re chomping at the bit to get back into their old tunes. Both “My Pet Goat” and “9×9” premiered during the second set, the former was blended into an abstract “Terrapin Station Jam” and the latter was sandwiched between “Uncle John’s Band,” and its reprise.
The first set featured Dead classics like “China Cat Sunflower,” “Touch of Grey,” “Jack Straw,” and “I Know You Rider.” “Terrapin,” “Uncle John,” and the Duo Jams were the meat of the second set and the encore was bookended by The Band’s “Ophelia,” and “Not Fade Away.” There was plenty of glancing around the stage in order for the various members to stay in synch but the interplay was at the most impressive during the extended jam sequences when that on-stage communication seemingly became telepathic. Not listening to what your bandmates are playing is a cardinal sin amongst musicians, and when JRAD switched on their delay effects, stretched their legs and took the jams into the deep end, there wasn’t any eye contact to be seen. The different members of the group were all inwardly focused, seemingly tuning out all external distractions, but somehow managing to keep what their cohorts were playing in mind. The ability of a jamband to tune their bandmates out while staying in synch is the holy grail of on-stage communication. It’s the kind of dynamic that allowed the Grateful Dead to regularly dish up 25-minute “Dark Star” performances in the Spring of ’69 and for Phish to make songs last nearly an hour during the Summer of ’97.
The great thing about a JRAD show is taking in the communication between the different members and the Joe/Marco connection isn’t even the most prominent dynamic. Guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger do a great job playing off each other from across the stage, both going back and forth between solo and rhythm duties seamlessly. The fluidity of Russo and Dreiwitz’s rhythm interplay is the skeletal structure of the group’s improvisation and Tom Hamilton, the strongest showman of the crew, does a great job engaging both Joe and Marco from between their respective stations. In the same way Jerry Garcia was the better player but Bob Weir was “Mr. Rock n Roll,” Tom Hamilton may not be the most technically proficient member on stage, but his stage presence is far and away the most explosive.
The seamless interplay executed by JRAD brings up the taboo reality that on a technically level, they’re leaps and bounds better than Dead & Company or anything else the surviving members of the Grateful Dead are currently doing. Not even a discussion needed that hired guns like John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge bring out the best in Bobby, Billy and Mickey, but their two-night run across the street at Fenway Park this past Summer featured too many awkward segues, missed transitions and gradually declining tempos to hold a candle to the ferociously tight musicianship that JRAD makes look so easy.
This is not to diminish the accomplishments or the Grateful Dead or to suggest that the tribute is better than the original. The Dead wrote the songs and literally created the live music community we’re enjoying all these years later. But with that said, if your goal in the year to come is to hear the most elite execution of Dead tunes possible, your best bet is a ticket to see JRAD next time they come through town. They do not disappoint.