Joe Russo is out for a walk near his New Jersey home when Live For Live Music catches him by phone on a Wednesday morning in July. He and his family moved to the suburbs in January of 2020—”right in time, there,” he admits. “Having two little ones in an apartment in Brooklyn during that time would’ve been pretty rough.”
Back in Brooklyn—the drummer’s former town and the birthplace of his nationally touring Grateful Dead tribute act, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead—concerts are just beginning to come back in numbers. But while New York City has navigated its tricky, elongated reopening, the new Westville Music Bowl in nearby New Haven, CT has cemented itself as a premier tour stop for the social distancing era and beyond.
By this time, over the course of two weekend-long runs, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead had already notched six full shows at Westville Music Bowl in 2021. The band added to that tally with a two-night stint on Friday, July 30th and Saturday, July 31st. A ninth and final show is set to follow on Saturday, September 4th.
The expanded residency initially fell together last year out of necessity, when virtually no other options for performing live existed for the band. Explains Russo, “We just kind of kept our heads down throughout the pandemic and then came across Westville, you know?”
“It was the first place that it felt safe to put on a show,” he continues. “It was close enough for the band to drive if we still needed to drive independently. They were doing a beautiful job with the social distancing. It was outside, it was in New Haven, it was with a promoter we love, Dave Niedbalski. It was the first place that checked all the boxes. If anything we were like, ‘Well, we’ll get to play like nine shows next year… [laughs].'”
“The Westvilles were our lifeline and safety net to really make an attempt to get back to playing when everything was still very, very uncertain.”
[Photo: Andrew Blackstein – JRAD at Westville Music Bowl, 5/28/21]
As touring options come back into play and bands once again hit the road—”Everybody’s like, ‘Oh shit. Go, go, go!’ It’s amazing,” says Joe—Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is already set up in a venue that is prepared to transition to full scale.
Scalability has been a crucial component for Westville Music Bowl since its launch. Throughout this spring and summer, it has provided high-quality stadium concert experiences to distanced, limited-capacity crowds. As case numbers drop, vaccination rates rise, and restrictions loosen, the stadium is already primed and ready to host larger crowds.
“I look forward to seeing that place flourish in the real world … the hopeful thought of what next summer will look like for the enormous shows that they can have there,” Joe reflects. “That place is gigantic. It’s not really a place that we would be playing traditionally, but with the social distance and having about two, three thousand people in the place, oh yeah, that makes sense for us. … It’s that perfect connect between being pandemic-ready—which I guess is a thing now [laughs]—and just real-world. It can exist in both.”
For the September 4th show, Russo is hoping that JRAD can be a part of that scaling process. “I’m very hopeful that the one in September is going to be full-capacity for us. We want to be out there, we want to be playing. We don’t want to rush to the end line and have something set it all back again, so I think we’re going to keep it fairly scaled for the next two and then I think we’re hoping by September everybody will be ready to rock and just open that sucker up.”
[UPDATE 8/31/21]: The September 4th show will take place at full capacity with COVID-19 protocols in place. All attendees must present proof of full COVID-19 vaccination (14 days past second shot) or proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the show. For more information, click here.
The timing there may just prove to be fortunate for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. As Russo astutely points out, “We’ve been so lucky just to have that place be an option, and then the jam band gods shined their light on us and we realized Dead & Company was off on that Saturday [9/4] between Boston and Connecticut. It’s like, ‘Oh. Neat. We’re in Connecticut on Saturday if anyone wants to come hang…”
[Photo: Andrew Blackstein – JRAD at Westville Music Bowl, 6/20/21]
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead had been between homes in the Northeast since long before the pandemic. The band cut its teeth with several years of creative, multi-night residencies at Brooklyn Bowl, complete with no-repeat runs and added creative elements. By 2018, JRAD’s popularity had exploded, and regular runs at the Williamsburg club no longer made sense. “It was getting a little tight,” Joe agrees, chuckling.
In the years that followed, the band moved on to national headlining tours, large theaters, and top billings at major festivals, but such lengthy residencies had remained a thing of the past. With Westville Music Bowl, however, the band found a match made in Haven—a place to set up shop, get comfortable, and see what happens during an uncertain touring year.
Just like JRAD turns the framework of the Grateful Dead canon into something fresh and exciting, the band has turned this stationary “tour” into an extended spectacle, from the incorporation of numerous special guests to the vast amount of different material being played—and all the way down to the run’s clever billing, Go To Haven. “I felt pretty good about that one, not going to lie,” Joe laughs.
The band is having fun with the continuity of “no repeats” from show to show, a trend that extended through the two July dates. “It’s been a challenge to do that because there’re some big hitters that you got to put away, but it’s really fun and it helps us explore all the meat in between—and that’s always been kind of our ethos anyway, so it’s a nice little place to be,” he explains.
Beyond the no-repeat framework, the band has incorporated various surprise elements into the Westville shows to keep the audience engaged. As Russo recalls, “We had the horn section out on the last [Sunday], we had Stuart Bogie on the first Sunday.”
Fruit Bats‘ Eric Johnson continued the trend on 7/31/21, joining JRAD at for a few songs to help close out the show. “It keeps it fresh for us, it keeps it moving forward, it keeps it fun,” Joe explains.
With “fun” as the main directive, Russo only plans to extend the no-repeat streak so far. As Joe predicts, “I think that last Saturday [September 4th] is just going to be a celebration of the whole pie. We’re just going to get to pick from whatever the hell we want.”
For tickets to any of the upcoming Joe Russo’s Almost Dead final Go To Haven shows at Westville Music Bowl on Saturday, September 4th, click here.
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[Originally published 7/26/21]