The five members of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead took the stage at the fabled Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY to celebrate an achievement as rare as any diamond or gem: they’ve survived a decade as a touring band in our modern, disposable, built-to-fail culture. A ten-year anniversary is a milestone worth celebrating in most any medium, but it’s so extremely rare a bet in the entertainment industry that any sane investor would certainly be leery of placing much stock in it reaching maturity.
After a night at Brooklyn Bowl where it all began that saw Bob Weir join JRAD and thus impart his blessings on the proceedings, drummer Joe Russo and his longtime partner-in-musical crime Marco Benevento, bassist Dave Dreiwitz (Ween), and the two-headed guitar-wielding beast of Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger began their weekend-long stay at The Capitol with a hardy reception from the crowded venue. Thanks to online streaming service Fans.live the entire world was welcomed into the experience with a crystal clear, note-perfect audio/video stream that felt so accurate you could practically feel the shoulders of the dancing crowd nudging you to get up and get down.
A cynic could easily dismiss this accomplishment as being due to the rock-solid foundation the band built this feat upon, the legendary songbook of the Grateful Dead. While it’s impossible to deny this certainly underwrote the group’s efforts it ignores the sheer volume of musical talent, diversity, and innovation the players in the band bring. The biggest strength of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead has always been its ability to bring its own interpretive spirit to the goldmine of material the Grateful Dead left behind and to follow the spirit of the music, if not the strict direct replication of a more recognizable production.
While not actual treasure-hunting tomb raiders, the band members have no qualms melting down beloved forms that have existed for decades and using the resultant precious material to forge new iterations of the nigh sacred forms and structures to forge something well and truly unique.
As Joe Russo’s Almost Dead gently transitioned from the first tune-checking, tentative notes of the night on the beloved Capitol Theatre stage you could feel them coiling up and preparing to let loose its rapidly coalescing energy. It had taken ten years, hundreds of shows, and countless hours of practice to reach this point and there was no reason to hurry. When the notes finally took a shape any fan of the Dead’s beloved catalog could identify as “Scarlett Begonias” the trust they’ve come to share in each other paid out with the fans receiving the dividend.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – “Scarlet Begonias” > “Six Days On The Road” > “Hell In A Bucket” – 1/27/23
Slipping into a full-on rockabilly by way of the ’70s iteration of the Dead’s take on the Dave Dudley classic “Six Days On The Road”, Scott Metzger showed off some decidedly old-school chops on the vocals. On lead guitar, he turned it over to Tom Hamilton for some fretboard frenzy that cranked the temp higher yet before dissolving back in the welcoming uptempo psychedelic-tinged rock of the Dead’s ’80s charting “Hell In A Bucket”, an interesting aspect of the Almost Dead aesthetic.
They’ve grown so comfortable in their musical brotherhood and mastery of their brand of Dead interpretations that they can make anything sound as much or as little as the original players as they feel in the moment. It’s this effortless collective connection to the source material that allows them to, as the Grateful Dead were themselves wont to do, create new things from dusty shelf corners.
Whether it’s cranking the intensity knob up stealthily and steadily in a melancholic “Black Peter” into a bracing take on the challenging time signature oddity “The Eleven”. From that challenging place, the band had earned itself a return on its multi-years of study and practice with a more straightforward, smile-inducing, set-closing “I Know You Rider”.
Even then the ridiculously in-synch rest of the band followed instinctively when Russo felt the urge to rev the tempo up to blinding speed before an acapella chorus proceeded an epic final tumble to Earth. As setbreak came, the drenched with solidly earned sweat Russo took a quick moment to introduce the band for a hearty round of well-deserved love from the crowd.
When Joe Russo’s Almost Dead returned to the still-smoldering Capitol Theatre stage for set two, the band took a sunshiney, island music-tinged path into a boogie-inducing “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”. From there it almost seemed like there was some sort of “challenge checklist” the band members had set for themselves to complete.
Merge reggae and island music nods in a boogie down “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”? Check! Manage to both invoke Primus while simultaneously melt faces with existential, other-worldly elements in a set defining “Cats Down Under The Stars”? Check! Make sure to give the crowds a few minutes of a more tranquil take on the bluesy “Feel Like A Stranger” to let them regain their collective sanity? Check!
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”, > “Cats Down Under The Stars” – 1/27/23
Having shown themselves to be honest inheritors of the spirit of innovation that won the Grateful Dead a legion of true believers, Russo & Co displayed a level of faithfulness to “Franklin’s Tower” and a melancholic by nature “Throwing Stones” that demonstrated their ability to stick to the script when needed. For one final tearjerker, Tom Hamilton took lead vocals on JRAD’s debut of “Days Between”, sending the band into its well-earned second break.
A quick stretch of the legs and JRAD was back at it, encoring with the always crowd-pleasing finisher “Not Fade Away” before taking one last flier to remind folks of the group’s decidedly younger roots with a fast and fun take on Spacehog‘s ’90s classic “In The Meantime’ to bring it all the way to the bank.
And just like that the band deposited the crowd back into the real world, blinking in the harsh light, slightly stunned and yet still ready for more. If this is just the opening salvo of a three-night run at The Capitol it looks like the return on mutual investment of the last ten years has been a truly beneficial one for band and fan alike. In these troubled days isn’t that all anyone really wants out of life?
Scroll down to check out a gallery of images from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at The Capitol Theatre courtesy of photographers Bahram Foroughi and Andrew Blackstein. Read Live For Live Music‘s full coverage of JRAD’s 10th-anniversary run: Sunday | Saturday | Thursday.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – The Capitol Theatre – Port Chester, NY – 1/27/23 – Full Audio
[Audio: Cam Keough]
Setlist: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | The Capitol Theatre | Port Chester, NY | 1/27/23
Set One: Scarlet Begonias  > Six Days On The Road  > Hell In A Bucket , Black Peter  >The Eleven , I Know You Rider 
Set Two: Man Smart, Women Smarter  > Cats Down Under The Stars  > Feels Like Stranger , Franklin’s Tower , Throwing Stones  Days Between 
Encore: Not Fade Away , In The Meantime 
 Grateful Dead
 Dave Dudley, FTP
 King Radio cover
 Jerry Garcia
 The Crickets