Last night, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead made its highly anticipated headlining debut at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. Almost Dead’s Red Rocks performance has been a long time coming. The group composed of Joe Russo, Marco Benevento, Tom Hamilton, Scott Metzger, and Dave Dreiwitz was initially supposed to make their first headlining appearance at the famed Colorado venue at the end of April, though unfavorable weather forced their show to be moved indoors to the 1st Bank Center and prompted their Red Rocks date to be rescheduled for later in the summer. Unfortunately, bassist Dave Dreiwitz was on tour with Ween and unavailable for the new date, though the Grateful Dead-inspired ensemble found a worthy replacement in Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge. After many months of anticipation, Almost Dead certainly did not disappoint for their headlining Red Rocks show, putting on a truly exemplary performance for the sold-out crowd that also saw the group heavily tease Phish, ahead of the Vermont quartet’s annual three-night run at Dick’s Sporting Good Park that starts tonight.
Without any supporting acts—which is a relative rarity for most Red Rocks shows—Joe Russo’s Almost Dead took the stage around 8 pm, opening the show up with a soft and melodic intro by Benevento on the baby grand. As the rest of the group joined it, the low-volume and jazzy intro sped up into “Here Comes Sunshine.” The song, given the circumstances of the cancellation of their previously slated Red Rocks appearance, was an appropriate choice, particularly when considering that rain had haunted the day, though cleared for the start of the show. After the first verse, Metzger took the first guitar solo of the night, with his crisp playing leading the charge into the jam’s apex and eliciting hoots and hollers from the crowd. After some truly stellar solo work from Benevento over the smooth grooves offered by Oteil, the group returned to the tight harmonies of “Here Comes Sunshine,” with Russo expertly leading to the close of the song.
“Here Comes Sunshine” quickly deteriorated into a discordant and edgy transition with an almost Frank Zappa-esque tone, heavily leaning on eccentric percussion, staccato keys, and aggressive and far-out-there guitar from Tom Hamilton. After Russo reigned the group in from this spacey interlude with a three-hit repetitive rhythm, an abrupt transition led into “Ruben and Cherise,” which similarly danced on the edge of spacey. The song’s jam initially was spacious, though the group tightened up a few moments later, and after a wailing guitar solo by Hamilton, settled into a more propulsive and steady rhythm. “Mama Tried,” featuring Metzger on lead vocals, truly and fully locked the crowd in for the night, with Benevento laying out an upbeat and jubilant solo before passing off the lead to Hamilton and later Metzger, who built the song to its triumphant close.
For the rest of the first set, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead offered a thrilling and near non-stop string of seven songs, bringing back and weaving the set’s various numbers across each other. Starting out with the slinky “New Speedway Boogie,” the crowd packed into the natural amphitheater was particularly and predictably vocal after Tom Hamilton’s lines, “Spend a little time on the mountain / Spend a little time on the hill.” Metzger’s solo during the number was dynamic, at points soulful and at points precise and rhythmic, eventually leading back into the refrain following a huge drum fill from Russo. Benevento was up next, with his feature offering heavy keyboard effects before switching over to the grand piano for that heavily riffed off and winded between Oteil’s steady and powerful bass.
As tastes of “The Music Never Stopped” began to materialize out of “New Speedway Boogie,” Joe Russo and Tom Hamilton began to add elements of both songs into their vocal harmonies, moving back and forth between lines of the two numbers during a vocal jam. After briefly jamming through the reprise of “The Music Never Stopped,” the jam segued back into the theme of “New Speedway Boogie.” Russo casually tossed one of his drum sticks behind him with a grin, switching it out with a new one without missing a beat, then led the group in accelerating into “Dancin’ In The Streets.” The disco-tinged tune off 1977’s Terrapin Station was a predictable crowd-pleaser, with the audience all dancing and singing along to the joyful melody.
“The Music Never Stopped” > “New Speedway Boogie”
Eventually, “Dancin’ In The Streets” morphed into a swirling and cascading jam housing dynamic interplay across Hamilton, Benevento, and Metzger, which again echoed hints of “The Music Never Stopped”. Oteil too got his time to shine during the jam, stepping forward during a sudden change in melody with his teases of King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew” for a jazzier segment with him and Benevento at the helm. A percussive transition featuring spritely key ornamentations from Marco eventually thinned out, become sparse before leading back into the refrain of “Dancin’.” As the volume dropped and faded to a whisper, the group returned to “New Speedway Boogie,” initially keeping the volume low before the band brought it back up and coasted on the song’s mellow groove. The song slowly transitioned back out of “New Speedway,” Almost Dead faked out the audience with wisps of “Uncle John’s Band,” before Metzger picked up a slide for the start of “Box of Rain” and Oteil stepped to the mic. As always, people love when any a band will “Let Oteil Sing” (and for good reason), and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead certainly did a fine job of giving Oteil his proper time as lead vocalist. His voice was beautiful, clear, and soulful, with the sounds from the ensemble filled the amphitheater with a full and wholly complete sound.
“He’s Gone” was classified by strong vocals from Hamilton, shimmering keys, and a powerful bass line. Scott and Marco both kicked into their own roaring solos during the tune, which also worked in teases of “Truckin'” and “Tennessee Jed.” As the expansive and complex first set stretched on—it ended up clocking in at around two hours—”He’s Gone” held a fake-out ending, with the group holding a long-pause, which elicited massive cheers from the audience, before picking back up into the tune. For the song’s a capella close, again, Oteil stepped to the mic, using a high-register falsetto to scat the lines of “He’s Gone” over the tight harmonies laid down by the rest of the crew—the subsequent vocal jam saw the a capella rendition of “He’s Gone” intertwine with the lyrics, “One way or another, this darkness has got to give,” again bringing back in “New Speedway Boogie,” which was a theme across the first set. Rather than return to “New Speedway Boogie” in full, a huge transitional jam led into the set-closing song, “Truckin’.” Metger shined during his solo with a perfect mix of pristine guitar work but loose improvisation, eventually with his playing gaining a more rhythmic focus and teases of “The Other One” before a dramatic build led to the frenetic and energized close to the first set, with Joe Russo front and center and masterfully milking the song and the set’s close.
After introducing the members of the band, including introducing Oteil as “the wonder of the world,” Joe Russo and the rest of Almost Dead took a short set break. After the massive, extended first set, fans were reeling from the medley-like second half that wove and revisited the themes of the final six songs of the set. For their return, the second set started out with “Jack Straw,” featuring a spirited opening solo from Tom Hamilton. The dramatic and slowed-down close to “Jack Straw” made an abrupt change into “Feel Like A Stranger,” and a spacious and airy jam was born from the disco-esque tune, though the segment remained grounded by the heavy groove laid out by the all-star rhythm section. As the jam become steadier and borderline trance-y, things began to get a little bit Phish-y, much to the delight of the audience, particularly considering that rumors had been circulating that Trey Anastasio had sound-checked with the band earlier in the day. With Phish’s annual Labor Day weekend run at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park kicking off today, Almost Dead gave an appropriate nod to the many Phish fans catching the Almost Dead show while in town for Phish Dick’s, making a sudden change into an instrumental “Harry Hood” jam, marking the first time the ensemble has ever played the staple Phish tune.
“Feel Like A Stranger”
“Harry Hood” Jam
The crowd went wild for this Phish reference, though the group eventually transitioned out of the “Harry Hood” jam and into “China Cat Sunflower.” Twisting the Grateful Dead’s traditional “China Cat” / “I Know You Rider” combo and making it their own, the group worked in “The Eleven,” “The Wheel,” and Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain” before entering the well-loved “I Know You Rider” to close off the sequence. Ahead of “Rider,” during “The Wheel,” again Joe Russo’s Almost Dead teased a Phish tune, working in tastes of “Bathtub Gin” and giving the song some proper love before returning to “The Wheel” and slowly and steadily jamming into the group’s debut of “There Is A Mountain,” featuring Joe Russo taking on lead vocal duties for the Donovan cover. “There Is A Mountain” was also an appropriate nod to their bassist for the evening, Oteil Burbridge, considering that the tune served as the basis for Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” and Oteil largely came into the spotlight during his tenure with ABB. From “There Is A Mountain,” an urgent build led into “I Know You Rider,” always a popular choice in Colorado with its lines referencing the “cool Colorado rain” and one that has frequently been played during Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s stops in the state.
“The Wheel” with teases of Phish’s “Bathtub Gin” and Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain”
“There Is A Mountain” > “I Know You Rider”
After an a capella chorus ahead of a big close to “I Know You Rider”, a dramatic and heavy buildup segued into “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” As the group accelerated to close out the show, the band was totally dialed in, and the song was characterized by pristine vocals from Scott and both Tom and Marco in truly proper form during each of their solos. Scott led the song into a “Night In Tunisia” jam with his own meticulous solo, eventually leading into the jazzy and worldly tune originally by Dizzy Gillespie, while Tom Hamilton riffed off this vibe, offering teases of “Estimated Prophet.” As some light drizzle began to fall, the jam picked up an eerie and smooth tone, eventually building into yet another Phish tune—this time in the form of “Stash”—before landing back into the refrain of “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
For the crown jewel of their show, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead closed out their second set with one of the most excellent renditions of “Morning Dew” this relatively young writer has ever heard. Tom Hamilton’s voice was powerful and heart-wrenching, causing goosebumps for many in the crowd. After Tom’s soaring guitar solo, the band moved into the song’s quiet interlude, and the 9,500 person venue was nearly silent. While swells of cheers and subsequent “shhhs” characterized the reaction from the crowd for the end of the song, when it was quiet, you could hear a pin drop in the large outdoor amphitheatre, making for a truly mystical moment between Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and their fans in attendance. With Marco adding his own ornamental glissandos, eventually, just Marco and Tom remained for their own gorgeous duet to close out the show, just as the rain truly started to pour.
“Morning Dew” was a beyond powerful way to end their show, and Joe Russo followed this by giving thanks to the fans and especially to their bassist Dave Dreiwitz who could not be attendance for the show, noting “There’s no way in fucking hell we’d be here without him.” Coming up on their strict 11:30 curfew fast, the ensemble returned with an a capella rendition of the traditional Grateful Dead show closer, “And We Bid You Goodnight,” which again saw Oteil taking on lead scatting duties over the rest of Almost Dead’s tight harmonies and making for a perfect end to a wonderful show.
“And We Bid You Goodnight”
[Video: Ted Rockwell]
To say that Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s headlining debut at Red Rocks last night was special would be an understatement. While Dave Dreiwitz truly was missed, Oteil stepped into his role seamlessly, with those unfamiliar with the band or the bassist unlikely able to realize that he’s not a normal member of the touring unit. While their first scheduled headlining Red Rocks date was postponed, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead had near-perfect weather last night, despite forecasts predicting otherwise, and the rain that started to pour during the last song—their spectacular rendition of “Morning Dew”—caused a reverence across the crowd that made it feel more like a divine message and a planned part of the show than an inconvenience.
The first set saw Almost Dead showcasing what sets them apart from other Grateful Dead “cover” bands: an innovative spirit that allows the group to be fearless with their transitions and in the setlists they compile, with the medley-like first set emphasizing their musicality and creativity. The second set and its Phish teases showed the group’s willingness to play and interact with the crowd, as Almost Dead has drawn in many fans with their ability to be superb musicians without taking themselves seriously to the point of being solemn, instead focusing on everyone, musicians included, having a good time and that spirit of joint camaraderie. And that “Morning Dew,” well, that speaks for itself.
You can check out the full setlist from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s Red Rocks debut below, courtesy of Peter Costello, as well as check out a full gallery of gorgeous pictures from last night below, courtesy of Bill McAlaine.
Setlist: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | Red Rocks Amphitheatre | Morrison, CO | 8/31/2017
Set One: Jam -> Here Comes Sunshine @ > Ruben & Cherise -> Jam -> Mama Tried, New Speedway Boogie # -> Music Never Stopped Reprise -> New Speedway Jam -> Music Never Stopped Jam -> Dancing In The Streets $ -> New Speedway Reprise % -> Box Of Rain ^ (OB), He’s Gone & -> Truckin’ -> Born Cross Eyed Jam
Set Two: Jack Straw > Feel Like A Stranger * -> Harry Hood Jam + -> China Cat Sunflower -> The Eleven -> The Wheel @@ -> There Is A Mountain ## > I Know You Rider, Greatest Story Ever Told $$, Morning Dew
Encore: We Bid You Goodnight %%
@ – With a “Sex Machine” (James Brown) Tease (MB), a “La Di Da Di” (Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick) Tease (MB)
# – Unfinished
$ – With Music Never Stopped Teases (TH), an unknown Tease (MB), New Speedway Teases & lyrics, a “Memphis Soul Stew” (King Curtis) Tease (OB), “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough (Michael Jackson) Teases (SM & MB).
% – First split New Speedway
^ – With an Uncle John’s Band Tease (Band)
& – With Truckin & Tennessee Jed Teases (TH) & a “Humdinger” (WOLF) tease (SM) – I think
* – Unfinished
+ – Instrumental, incomplete version of a Phish Cover (No lyrics were sung), First Time Played By Almost Dead.
@@ – First verse sung in 11, with an “In With the In Crowd” (Ramsey Lewis) Jam, a “Bathtub Gin” (Phish) Tease (MB)
## – Donovan Cover, Instrumental with 2 choruses only sung, First Time Played By Almost Dead. Basis for the Allman Bros “Mountain Jam” but closer to the original Donovan version.
$$ – With a “Night in Tunisia” (Dizzy Gillespie) Jam, an Estimated Prophet Tease (TH) & a “Stash” (Phish) Tease (SM)
%% – A cappella at their positions with vocal mics, not at the front of the stage