Joe Russo’s Almost Dead stepped out into the light at Asheville, NC’s Salvage Station for a shiny, happy outdoor show on a rare Wednesday early start showcase of what makes this a truly special band. JRAD’s spring tour got out of the gate a bit earlier than usual to accommodate the midweek booking and made the most out of the band’s time in the light with a great show that saw the band members in perfect form after a spectacular three-day run over the previous weekend in New Orleans for Jazz Fest.

Drummer Joe Russo loves for his band to hit that all-important first song in tune and fire on all cylinders so the members of JRAD got themselves a bubbling little jam going that they stoked into the early afternoon’s first tune, Bob McDill’s “Catfish John”. Though guitarist Tom Hamilton stretched out a bit, the band avoided noodling around much for a quick transition into Bob Dylan territory, where gruffer-voiced guitarist Scott Metzger shined for “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. There were some fretboard fireworks to finish the cover before audiences at home and abroad got their first look into the Grateful Dead songbook proper with a fairly standard “Althea” that still sparkles as it did when it debuted.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – “Catfish John” (Bob McDill) [Pro-Shot] – 5/10/23

“Althea”’s departure allowed for one of the first longer set pieces, a stellar take on Bob Weir’s “Greatest Story Ever Told” that wound its way into a feel-good, sing-along, crowd-pleasing take on Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “I Second That Emotion”. As with the Dead, it’s these standard covers that see some of the most creative explorations from JRAD. This “Emotion” got deep and far afield before sharply turning into the familiar, beloved opening notes of the Jerry Garcia Band standard “Reuben and Cherise”. The ghostly tale of New Orleans horror came and went fairly quickly and the first set came to a rockabilly finish with the Metzger-led “Six Days On The Road” by Sawyer Brown. A perky Russo noted how good it felt to be outside, playing midweek before heading backstage for some electrolytes and shade.

A strong, wide organ-heavy intro from keyboardist Marco Benevento got the second set started off properly for a far-ranging “New Speedway Boogie” that soared before literally, completely winding down to nothing. Somehow resurrecting itself to get to the well-worn closing chant of darkness giving way to light, the ensuing light giving way to darkness all around them was a fun bit of irony not lost on the smirking Benevento. “All Along The Watchtower “ galloped into existence next, employing a clever bit of dichotomy: the two most well-known versions of the tune, Dylan’s and Jimi Hendrix’s, were honored as the separate guitar lines coexisted amazingly.

From there, a Jerrry Garcia/Robert Hunter-penned“Cats Out Under The Stars” swirled but seemed to purposefully never come into complete focus until the final verse. It was a deft bit of live interpretation that only a seasoned band would even have attempted but JRAD pulled it off without a hitch. Benevento was much more active in the second set, and the sonic effect of raining notes down during the follow-up cover of The Beatles‘ “I’ve Just Seen A Face” was some of his most impressive work of the evening.

The disparate playing that made “Cats” shine so brightly returned for an engrossing take on a “Playin’ In The Band” > Candyman” > “Playin’” sandwich that delivered an impressive variety of peaks and valleys. It’s sad that Russo and bassist Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) can sometimes be lost in the more melodic displays their bandmates provide but without their clockwork precision none of the rest of the music would have been nearly as impressive.

Since the early curfew meant the hour got late earlier than usual, the set-closing “Deal” and the always fun “Touch Of Grey”, provided a jovial sendoff to the sun-kissed crowd. The “Grey”, in particular, saw Russo stepping on the metaphorical musical pedal, taking his beloved band out for an ever-increasing, speedy joyride over the late-stage Dead chart-topper to close the second set with a checkered flag finish.

The encore was particularly playful, with a bit of solo Benevento on piano that slowly evolved into the late, great Warren Zevon’s signature tune, “Werewolves Of London” before a quick finish and an expectation-defying second encore track, the teased-throughout-the-show “One More Saturday Night”.

Though the version they played was, in and of itself, fairly standard, its inclusion in a Wednesday setlist was a cheeky bit of fun that smartly displayed what makes JRAD such a wonderful source of fresh takes on the sprawling Grateful Dead catalog. They, collectively, have no fear. They will zig when the Dead zagged without apology, and rightly so. Making material their own was a hallmark of the Grateful Dead and no other act out there does this as well, as often, or as unpredictably as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead does and it’s clearly one of the best parts of any of the band’s shows. It makes the music alive and dangerous again, and in the end, that’s the best any show can be.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – Salvage Station – Asheville, NC – 5/10/23 – Full Audio

[Audio: Chris C.]

Setlist: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | Salvage Station | Asheville, NC | 5/10/23

Set One: Jam > Catfish John (Bob McDill) > Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (Bob Dylan) > Althea (Grateful Dead) > Greatest Story Ever Told (Bob Weir) > I Second That Emotion (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles) > Rubin & Cherise (Jerry Garcia) > Six Days on the Road (Sawyer Brown)

Set Two: New Speedway Boogie (Grateful Dead) > All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan) > Cats Under the Stars (Jerry Garcia) > I’ve Just Seen a Face (The Beatles) > Dark Hollow (Bill Browning and His Echo Valley Boys) > Playin’ in the Band (Grateful Dead) > Candyman (Grateful Dead) > Playin’ in the Band, Deal (Jerry Garcia) > Touch of Grey (Grateful Dead)

Encore: Werewolves of London (Warren Zevon), One More Saturday Night (Bob Weir)