Joe Russo’s Almost Dead wrapped a stellar return to California with one more Saturday night of Grateful Dead tunes at Stanford University’s newly renovated Frost Amphitheatre.
The Bay Area venue was a longtime favorite of the original Dead, as between 1982 and 1989 they played 14 total shows in that space. To further commemorate Saturday’s show, the performance marked Joe Russo’s 200th with his eponymous band, and took place on the 50th anniversary of the end of Woodstock. Russo’s bandmates, however, have two shows on Russo after the drummer sat out a pair of shows upon the recent birth of his child.
The energy of the Dead’s legacy was palpable at Frost Amphitheatre on Saturday. A large portion of the crowd was new to the band, but not the scene. When JRAD was announced at Frost, old Deadheads in the area became curious and many old heads rediscovered a piece of the magic. Adding to the occasion was a special guest musician Stuart Bogie sitting in the whole show.
Bogie was a ball of energy in his own right, swapping between saxophone, clarinet, flute, and harmonica. Sometimes he would swap instruments to match the flowing crescendo. When he wasn’t playing, Bogie was all smiles, dancing like he was in the audience. The addition of an array of available horns upped the already jazz tendencies of JRAD and mid-80s Dead funk.
The band started promptly at 6:30 p.m. and began with a heavy-handed free jazz bombshell into “Morning in Marin” from Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales’ 1971 jazz-rock fusion album Hooteroll? After about 7 minutes, “Morning” segued sharply into “Feel Like a Stranger”. Guitarist Scott Metzger took the lead vocals on the 15-miunute “Stranger” before the band moved to a standalone “St. Stephen” with multiple false ending fake-outs on the 18-minute performance of the early-Dead track.
The next four songs flowed one right into the other, providing a near seamless 45 minutes of music. “I Need a Miracle” was an off-setlist audible and the crowd roared in approval. Keyboardist Marco Benevento and bassist Dave Dreiwitz were a rock-solid pair for Russo’s drumming to explode off of. It wasn’t long before the aerial acrobatics of guitarist Tom Hamilton and Bogie on the saxophone defined the raucous rock and roll that JRAD brings out of the Grateful Dead repertoire. A hot segue into “Jack Straw” saw Benevento make runs up and down the keys in thunderous and orchestrated waves between verses. The second jam of the song was taken over by Bogie and his saxophone. Russo built up a sense of urgency under Benevento’s splashing keys and plummeted the crowd back into the chorus right around the one-hour mark of the show. Hamilton swooped in, eventually continuing to the ending.
The set came to a close with the iconic Dead segue of “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider”. Bogie, not missing a beat, was a major player on “China Cat” in keeping up a speedy and wide-ranged main melody on the flute. A hearty jam between the two songs heard each instrument intertwining and playing off of the others. With Bogie transitioning over to the saxophone, the new instrument added into the mix provided a wildly memorable transition into “I Know You Rider”.
The second set began not long after sunset with a slow tempo click and very light key-work from Benevento. Bogie, beginning on a harmonica, was now creating eerie dissonance with his clarinet to compliment Benevento’s synth and Hamilton’s melodic pinch harmonics. The set’s opening jam crept into the familiarity of “Estimated Prophet” off the Dead’s 1977 album Terrapin Station. A 13-minute take on the song featured a noteworthy jam, and the rest of the set continued to grow in strength. “Mission in the Rain”, from Garcia’s Reflections solo album followed before continuing into a lively “Cumberland Blues” > “Viola Lee Blues” combination. The pair of classically spaced out, explorative and experimentally jazzy songs in the Grateful Dead catalog stretched to a nearly 30-minute section of music, likely filling the Frost Amphitheatre with some of the most danceable, hardest rocking, and musically interesting improvisation the venue has experienced in decades.
“Viola Lee’s Blues” returned to the final verse and before the final word was even said, Russo pushed his microphone out of the way and barreled into his drum kit for “Franklin’s Tower”. The ten-minute dance party wrapped up with a heavy groove between Benevento and Russo taking the song back into the chorus.
The final 20 minutes of the show was split between a pair of Dead originals from the latter half of their career with “Throwing Stones” and “Standing on the Moon”. About five minutes into “Stones”, the band slowed things down considerably. Bogie stepped into the space with a strong and controlled clinic on the jazz flute. The dueling guitar work between Metzger and Hamilton brought Benevento out of the woodwork, and Russo largely hung back, letting his friends take the wheel.
The second set ended at 9:48 p.m. in accordance with Frost Amphitheatre’s strict curfew of 10 p.m. Fortunately, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead still had one more song left in them and chose to close the show with the old blues standard, “C.C. Rider”.
One of the most interesting choices behind this selection for the encore has to do with the fact that Russo was celebrating his 200th show, a point that he pointed out ahead of the encore. In Roman numerals, “CC” reads as two hundred, a nod to Russo’s show count. Of course, the band’s 200th overall show passed a few weeks back, though Russo had to miss two recent shows following the birth of his second child in late July.
Watch the band’s entire performance from Saturday below.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – Frost Amphitheatre – 8/17/19 – Full Video
[Video: Must Have Media]
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead return to action next weekend with their scheduled headlining appearance at Virginia’s LOCKN’ Festival. Head to the band’s website for tickets and upcoming tour info.
Scroll down for a gallery of photos from Saturday’s performance, courtesy of photographer Josh Huver.
Setlist: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | Frost Amphitheatre | Stanford, CA | 8/17/2019
Set One: Jam > Morning in Marin > Feel Like A Stranger, St. Stephen, I Need a Miracle > Jack Straw > China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
Set Two: Jam > Estimated Prophet > Mission in the Rain > Cumberland Blues > Viola Lee Blues > Franklin’s Tower, Throwing Stones > Standing on the Moon
Encore: C.C. Rider