This past weekend, at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl, the Freaks Ball celebrated its thirteenth birthday. With what originally started out as a one-night, all-out party at Tribeca with a very young Robert Randolph & The Family Band, along with The Squad – Charles Haynes on Drums, Adam “Schmeens” Smirnoff on Guitar, Mark Kelley on bass, Jeff Baskher on Keys, Sammy Kinniger – has now turned into a two-night extravaganza at, where else, but The Bowl. Playing host duties on this second night was Sir Joe Russo (Furthur/Shpongle/The Duo), who brought his Bustle in Your Hedgerow bandmates Marco Benevento, Dave Dreiwitz, and Scott Metzger back after a successful Friday night with Tom Hamilton‘s American Babies (check out our review of that one here). Hamilton joined forces with the Bustle members for an “Almost Dead” set which, for all intents and purposes, was some of the best and inspired Grateful Dead tunes that anyone has heard in the last twenty some-odd years.
Let’s just get this out of the way before this review continues; for all intents and purposes, this was the first time that this lineup has played two full sets of these songs on stage together. Now, Russo plays with Futhur and every one in this lineup is an accomplished musician in their own right, but I don’t think anybody could quite predict just what we were in for on this particular evening. Opening with “Bertha” you could tell early on that these guys were locked in and were not going to play a standard Grateful Dead cover set. “Jack Straw” was an early favorite that brought a smile to everyone’s faces. Then, the first set took the first turn into another realm, as a “Brown Eyed Woman>Tennessee Jed>Shakedown Street” segment melted just about every face in the Bowl. The segue from “Jed>Shakedown” was like a gift bestowed upon us by the gods. As the opening notes of “Shakedown” came seemingly out of the ether, you could look around and see eyes wide open in disbelief at what we were all witnessing.
The question that begged to be asked at this point is: Could these guys really be destroying these legendary songs as well as they are? And the answer to that question is a resounding YES! We were only a little over halfway through the first set, mind you. Back to the “Shakedown”; it was funked out, it was played perfectly, and the crowd was beyond receptive. Asses were shaking, smiles were big and wide, and the perspiration had begun to drip on each and every body in the place. And just when you thought you might have a minute to grab a beer, JRAD busts out a “China Cat>I Know You Rider” to close out the set, and you could feel the magic in the air. The first set finally came to a close, after minds had been melted and blown.
After a well-deserved set break, for both band and fans alike, it was anybody’s guess what was in store for the second set. Opening with an “Estimated Prophet” it was like seeing Bobby’s doppelganger, as Scott Metzger not only sounds like Weir (if not a bit better), but with that beard, truly resembles him too. It was eery, to be honest. Metzger nailed every part he sang, nailed every solo he took (the whole night), and impressed many in the audience who weren’t familiar with him, and even those that were. “Prophet” segued into a nicely played and pretty “Eyes of the World.” Tom Hamilton is a great musician, and can play just about anything – as you could plainly hear during his solos; and he has a good voice to go along with that. We all know that Jerry, Bobby, and Phil didn’t exactly have the greatest voices in the world (though Jerry’s was the best, and will always be timeless), but to hear these songs with polished vocals does truly make a difference. It also has to be said at how great of a bassist Dave Dreiwitz is. The guy held it down all show and never missed a beat, and his obvious delight in playing these songs with his friends is enough to put a smile on your face.
After a brief “Drums” in which Joe Russo showed us why he is one of, if not the best drummer in the scene today, the “Help On The Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower” was another well played segment. They stayed patient, and let the songs take them to new heights, as opposed to the other way around. “St. Stephen” is one of my favorite Dead songs, and if this Almost Dead lineup didn’t do it complete justice, I am losing my mind. I don’t think I have ever quite heard “Stephen” played like this….it was brilliant. It was truly magical and of epic proportions. Everyone hit at the right time, and explored the fantastical elements of this song to a T. It elevated all the minds in the room that extra notch and took us to that far away place that only music can do.
What took place during the “Stephen>The Eleven>The Other One>Viola Lee Blues” was something transcendent. “The Other One” was absolutely mind-blowing, with some serious shredding and deep jamming going on; it made you sit back and just shake your head in awe at what we were being dealt from this all-star cast of musicians. Then, as if we hadn’t received enough gifts on this magical journey, arguably one of the best “Viola Lee Blues” ever played (Dead or no Dead) was handed down to us from the heavens. It was as if Jerry was witnessing this superb performance, and said, “Hey, nice job….tell them this next one’s from me.” What ensued, especially during the jam, was a cacophony of sounds and ideas, with Marco Benevento’s star shining brightest, and in which he showed everyone why he is a sculptor of sound. This version of “Viola Lee” would convince ANY old-school Deadhead of how good this show was (Not convinced? Listen to it below). The encore of “US Blues” was, again, played just right, but in all honesty may have been the only less-than-stellar pick of the night. But, we will let that slide, as everything else was so on point.
If you were in attendance on this very special night, then you understand how incredible of an experience this was, and how well Joe Russo and his Almost Dead cohorts played. If you weren’t, of course you will question the validity to all of these claims. But, let it be known, that there were plenty of “old-schoolers” in the house, and both during and after the show could be heard gushing about how surprised they were by this superb performance. I am not just blowing smoke up your asses, or those of the artists that performed on this evening, I am just telling it like it is. This WAS special, and I think I not only speak for myself, but for everyone else that was at Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday night when I say thank you to Joe Russo, Marco Benevento, Tom Hamilton, Dave Dreiwitz, and Scott Metzger for putting on one hell of a fucking show. There was some serious rockin’ and rollin’ going on, and the new life that was given to these classic Dead songs was a welcome treat. Keep your fingers crossed that this happens again….and if it does, DO NOT MISS IT! You have been given proper warning.
Set I: Bertha, Althea, Jack Straw > Deal > Mr Charlie, Brown Eyed Women > Tennessee Jed > Shakedown Street, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
Set II: Estimated Prophet > Eyes Of The World* > Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower, St Stephen > The Eleven > The Other One > Viola Lee
Encore: US Blues
Take a listen to these stellar version of “Viola Lee Blues” and “Shakedown Street”, courtesy of NYCTaper. Keep an eye out for a full recording of this show:
Check out this video of “Eyes of the World”:
Download the Entire Show with Complete Track Listing via NYCTAPER: HERE!
Download Another Tapers Version of The Entire Show Here Also:
Courtesy of PT User: dogfish
Both Schoeps CMC6mk21 (Split 20′ on Stage Lip, 4′ stands) & SBD>digital
Master: 16 bit 44.1 (Mixed by Justin Ripley & Recorded by Pete Costello)
(Photos By Mark Dershowitz of Heady Shots Photography)