When Joe Russo’s Almost Dead played its first show ten years ago today on January 26th, 2013, it was also supposed to be its last. The project was conceived as a one-off set for the 13th Annual NYC “Freaks Ball” with members of the local Led Zeppelin cover band, Bustle In Your Hedgerow. The response to the show was so overwhelmingly positive, the new group booked another show. And another, and another…
Today, hundreds of shows into its existence, the band has grown into a juggernaut on the live music circuit. The band—comprised of drummer Joe Russo, keyboardist Marco Benevento, bassist Dave Dreiwitz, and guitarists/vocalists Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton—sells out virtually every show it plays these days and has managed to break through the “cover band” stigma in the eyes of most fans, becoming an improvisational force to be reckoned with in its own right.
Today, for the tenth anniversary of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s eventful debut, we’re reliving the feeling of being blindsided by Russo & company’s first-ever Almost Dead set with Live For Live Music‘s initial review of the performance:
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – Brooklyn Bowl – New York, NY – 1/26/13
[Photo: Andrew Scott Blackstein]
[Originally publish 1/26/19]
Show Review by: Chris Meyer
Originally Published: January 27, 2013
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. Hamilton joined forces with the Bustle members for an “Almost Dead” set which, for all intents and purposes, was some of the best and most 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; This was the first time that this lineup has played two full sets of these songs on stage together. Now, Russo plays with Furthur, and everyone in this lineup is an accomplished musician in their own right, but I don’t think anybody could have quite predicted exactly what we were in for on this particular evening.
Opening with “Bertha”, you could tell early on that these guys 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 Womem” > “Tennessee Jed” > “Shakedown Street” segment blew just about every mind 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 was: Could these guys really be destroying these legendary songs as well as they are, on their first attempt? A little over halfway through the first set, the answer to that question, of course, was a resounding YES! 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 room. Just when you thought you might have a minute to grab a beer, JRAD busted out out a “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” to close out the set–you could feel the magic in the air.
After a well-deserved set break–for both band and fans alike–it was anybody’s guess as to what was in store for the second set. Watching the opening “Estimated Prophet” was like seeing Bob Weir‘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 eerie, 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, as well as those who 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 great 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 strong, polished vocals does truly leave an impression. 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 was enough to put a smile on your face that will last until the Spring.
After a brief “Drums”, in which Joe Russo showed us why he is one of the best, if not the best drummer in the scene today, the “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower” provided another well played segment. The band stayed patient, and let the songs take them to new heights, as opposed to the other way around. “St. Stephen” is among many fans’ favorite Dead songs, and if this Almost Dead lineup didn’t do it complete justice, I might be losing my mind. I don’t think I have ever quite heard “Stephen” played like this….it was brilliant. It was truly magical, a performance 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 fantastic live 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 as he showed everyone why he is truly a sculptor of sound. This version of “Viola Lee” would convince ANY old-school Deadhead of how good this show was (Not convinced? Give it a listen). The encore of “US Blues” was, again, played just right. 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 spectacularly 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 may 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 they could be heard gushing about how surprised they were by this superb performance. I am not just blowing smoke up your asses, or the asses 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 and giving new life 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.
SETLIST: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | Brooklyn Bowl | Brooklyn, NY | 1/26/13
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
[Cover photo via Mark Dershowitz of Heady Shots Photography]