Joe Russo’s Almost Dead swung through little town of Bethlehem, PA’s Wind Creek Event Center last night for another stellar stop on the band’s year-long run of tenth-anniversary concerts. With so many post-Grateful Dead cover acts out there, for one to hit the decade mark much less to be selling out theaters and taking top spots on festival lineups is impressive to say the least. The reasons for the band’s longevity and success are two-fold.

First, from its beginning in 2013 to the closing notes of last night’s “encore” (more on that later) JRAD did things its own way and the sold-out Wind Creek crowd loved every minute of it. Drummer Joe Russo and his longtime musical partner-in-crime, master of the keys Marco Benevento, and their stringed cohorts bassist Dave Dreiwitz and guitarists Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton all share a level of skill and dynamism on their respective weapons of choice but are gifted improvisations on said instruments.

Second, the members’ amazing level of talent aside, the real not-so “secret” to the band’s success as a tribute act is its willingness to take the material in new directions. One of the hallmarks of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s participants’ overall boldness in their efforts isn’t that they’re not trying to completely reinvent the wheel with the material by re-imaging the originals into different genres. Rather, Russo and his cohorts simply want to craft something new while artfully avoiding the well-worn grooves of the past.

Thursday evening’s show in Bethlehem, Russo and company’s first since Suwannee Hulaween, showed no rust. In fact, the band seemed to be in “mid-tour” form as JRAD took every opportunity to get lost in fresh jams and seamless segues. The entire first set flowed perfectly and the entire show was filled with extended mesmerizing flights of music fancy.

Dreiwitz got the evening started off with a super funky bass line that opened the night, setting a wandering pocket with his rhythm section collaborator Russo. Metzger does a mean Bob Weir vocal impersonation but his approach to the guitar jams is much more likely to explode in moments of exploration such as the first official tune of the set, an aggressive take on “The Music Never Stopped”. Funny thing is, for the rest of the set those words turned into more of a kept promise than just a setlist.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – Wind Creek Event Center – Bethlehem, PA – 11/16/23 – Preview

Thanks to the impressive, transformative jam that introduced it, the always welcome “Eyes Of The World” got an even stronger reception than normal as it solidified out of the second impressive jam of the evening. Engaged in the flow of creativity, the band stuck to what had worked thus far and, following “Eyes”, laid down a third instrumental journey before touching down into “Brown Eyed Women”. Carrying the musical baton straight through to the end of the set, Metzger led the way through the Kris Kristofferson classic “Me And Bobby McGee” before settling into a wildly energetic “Uncle John’s Band”.

Returning to the stage, JRAD used a song and sentiment familiar to anyone who has ever stuck a finger in the air, getting back to business with set opener “I Need A Miracle”. For anyone left in the house with their face not melted off from the first set “He’s Gone” popped to life to steal it right off your head before flowing with much flourish into “Let It Grow”. Snuggled safely in between two cozy halves of “Let It Grow”, the band eulogized the late Janis Joplin with Robert Hunter‘s tribute “Bird Song”. From there was a “Space” worthy sonic trip that went for a quick zip around the solar system before returning to Earth for a down-home visit with “Tennessee Jed”.

Guitarist Tom Hamilton, who had delivered some of the evening’s previous vocal and fretboard feats of fire, softened his approach a smidge for an all-smiles sing-a-long set closing “Touch Of Grey ” that had fans dancing in the aisles. After finally stopping, the captain of this squad of gifted improvisational “Yes AND…”-ers kept the good vibes flowing.

Before getting back into the music, Russo took to the mic, introduced his crew, stopped his departing bandmates, and bluntly stated the obvious by saying, simply, “We got one more for you.” As his bandmates retook their positions, Russo posited that perhaps, as we transition to 2024, “we can all sign a thing” saying that the band will just play one more, “instead of walking off and doing the whole charade.”

Most touring bands play in the evenings and generally have a set show and an understanding of how long their set will take each night. The glory of the improvisational jam scene bands that rose in the wake of The Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, and others is that so many of our acts only stop when the bar/club/arena/venue makes them stop for noise ordinance or “Need to sleep/Let the dog out/can we not just live at my job?” kinda reasons. After Russo’s heartfelt plea for not wasting time JRAD quickly regained the full attention of every ear and booty in the room with a groovy, night-closing “Big Railroad Blues” encore.

With all the harsh words in the political sphere and the overall heart-wrenching weirdness of our times it was wonderful to end a night that already saw a mutual, cathartically cheerful musical journey with a silly but kinda smart thought that everyone shares. Hard to think of a more fitting end to a fine night of joy and bliss created by the Dead and curated by those like Joe Russo’s Almost Dead who truly light the way forward. The band’s weekend trek carries on tonight, November 17th, in Philadelphia. For tickets and a full list of tour dates head here.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – Wind Creek Event Center – Bethlehem, PA – 11/16/23
[Audio: Travitz12]

Setlist: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | Wind Creek Event Center | Bethlehem, PA | 11/16/23

Set One: The Music Never Stopped > Eyes of the World > Brown-Eyed Women > Me & Bobby McGee > Uncle John’s Band

Set Two: I Need A Miracle > He’s Gone > Bird Song > He’s Gone > Let It Grow > > Tennessee Jed > Touch of Grey

Encore: Big Railroad Blues