Joe Russo and his bandmates are taking an aggressively electrifying approach to the Dead’s music not seen since Phil Lesh was pushing the boundaries with his cutting edge “Quintet” lineup from 2000-03.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead has been taking the jamworld by storm, but it’s been in a fashion comparable to Nightcrawler from the X-Men. The band will materialize for a few hot shows, then disappear again with no one sure when they will pop up next. Drummer Joe Russo started the band as a spinoff from his role backing the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in Furthur from 2009-13. But JRAD is far more than just another Dead cover band. Russo and his bandmates are taking an aggressively electrifying approach to the Dead’s music not seen since Lesh was pushing the boundaries with his cutting edge “Quintet” lineup from 2000-03.
With keyboardist and longtime compadre Marco Benevento alongside, Russo is also carrying their Benevento/Russo Duo chemistry to the next level. Bassist Dave Dreiwitz and guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger are all enjoying the ride as they get to jam out to their heart’s content. Many fans are claiming this is the best GD music going right now and JRAD certainly makes a strong case. Their touring has been rather sporadic, but the road schedule seems to be building momentum with the band finally making multiple appearances in California.
The Fox Theater in Oakland is akin to sacred ground since the Bay Area is the Dead’s home turf and so there’s a packed crowd on hand on this Saturday night. The band runs through a typically hot first set featuring a smoking rendition of “Help on the Way” into “The Music Never Stopped” and a next level jam on “The Wheel”. The unit’s tight chemistry is readily apparent, especially in the latter jam as the guitarists and Russo take off into a gravity-defying journey deep into the Dead’s space-time continuum that summons the spirit of Jerry Garcia in spectacular fashion. Tonight’s show then turns in an extra special direction when the band adds an acoustic segment to the set featuring none other than the Dead’s Bob Weir as the unannounced special guest.
The crowd roars in appreciation as Weir appears and then settles down like they’re in church as Weir leads the group through Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall”. It’s a most fitting selection in the wake of the stunning presidential win by the barbaric Donald Trump, as Weir channels Dylan’s visionary socio-political screed from the ‘60s. It’s on the following rendition of “Black Throated Wind” where JRAD’s patented jammy style starts to come through as the band pushes the energy forward in between verses, with Benevento pumping up the piano and the guitarists adding some extra riffage and then again with an uptempo flourish on the last chorus.
“We’re gonna do another tune by my personal favorite cowboy poet,” Weir says in his ever affable manner as the intro to Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a longtime staple of the GD repertoire. Weir delivers a splendid reading, yet one more like his solo performances. But he and the band gel on “Cassidy”, one of Weir’s great jam vehicles that’s tailor made to be taken for a ride. Benevento adds some dramatic piano flourishes while Russo and Weir connect on a steady beat as the band cranks up the flow of the jam. This leads to a hot segue into a jam within the jam on Weir’s “Let it Grow” before returning to “Cassidy” for the finish of the set. The crowd goes wild and yet it’s only the set break with a whole second set to come.
A hot take on the jazzy “King Solomon’s Marbles” gets things going again before a surprising downshift into “Row Jimmy”, one of the Dead’s slowest ballads. But then the band moves into a reggae-tinged intro on “Estimated Prophet” that starts building up the energy in the room again for a fiery jam. It’s the “Uncle John’s Band>Eyes of the World>Throwing Stones” sequence however where we see one of the nation’s top improv acts at the top of their game. The quintet is locked in here on the “Uncle John’s” jam as the music plays the band again with Hamilton and Metzger shredding those vintage Jerry licks, while Russo and Dreiwitz propel the groove in a fierce manner and Benevento adds the “x-factor” with his dynamic keys.
Dreiwitz gets a spotlight with a bass solo intro to “Eyes” as Russo dials in a simmering beat before the whole band kicks in and a buzz moves through the crowd as the Saturday night dance party cranks into high gear again. Benevento has been on fire all night and gets an extra chance to shine here with an extended piano solo to lead the band into another spectacular jam session as Russo lays down the percussive fury that makes every instrument feel like it’s soloing all at once, yet in a controlled form of chaos that still holds the groove together.
It seems like it can’t get any better but then the band launches into a most timely rendition of “Throwing Stones”, the Dead’s de facto political anthem against the “heartless powers” who are “selling guns instead of food today”. The crowd sings along in anthemic fashion, leading to a triumphant jam that again segues into another jam within the jam on “U.S. Blues”, a most fitting theme in the wake of the foul election that between the two most despised candidates in U.S. presidential history. The song’s insightful conclusion that “We are on our own” rings truer with each passing year and particularly so here in 2016 as the climate crisis builds while a climate denier seizes the White House. It’s a blessing that a band like JRAD exists to keep this message going at such a high level, as Weir’s Dead and Company project appears limited to a short run of summer tour dates. JRAD seems primed to help keep the vibe alive for years to come, and so a particular kind of passing of the torch has taken place on this night…