There are a lot of Grateful Dead cover bands out there, a lot. And while the original members of the Grateful Dead want nothing more than to have their songs fill the air, there are only a few bands with the overt blessings of guys like Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. For years Dark Star Orchestra has done an amazing jog of recreating the Grateful Dead experience, but the band that will no doubt carry on that legacy is Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
But like all things Dead, the stories of JRAD and Dark Star are inextricably entwined. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead really came out of the band Further, the Weir-Lesh fronted Dead project that also included former Dark Star Orchestra guitarist John Kadlecik in the Jerry Garcia role and Joe Russo in both the Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart roles. Joe is that good. Naturally, the experience stuck with Russo and he decided to carry on playing Dead songs with a new project.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead played their first show on January 26, 2013 at the Brooklyn Bowl for the Freaks Ball XIII, and while they only played one other show in 2013, it was enough. Whisperings began to spread through the jam community that these guys were really good. They began hitting the festival circuit and even played a three-night NYE run with Phil Lesh in Port Chester New, York. But they weren’t lauded because they mimicked the Grateful Dead to a tee, quite the contrary.
What sets JRAD apart is not necessarily in the way they play Grateful Dead songs, which is pretty straight forward, but in the way that they interpret them in an improvisational sense. JRAD doesn’t jam exactly like the Dead; they have their own improvisational flair. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly but a part of it is that JRAD let themselves be themselves. They’re not trying to be the Grateful Dead, which let’s face it, is probably a fool hardy venture unless you’re doing it very, very well. They don’t recreate shows and they don’t look the part. Further (pun intended), JRAD plays juxtapositions of songs that the Dead never did, giving a whole new flow and feel to the music. But what JRAD does have in common with the Dead besides the songbook is a certain charismatic chemistry that just draws people in.
Most people in the jam scene are familiar with the players in JRAD and the players are all familiar with each other. Joe Russo brought in his longtime collaborator Marco Benevento on keys. Before JRAD and before Further, the drummer and the keyboardist made a name for themselves as the Benevento Russo Duo. Benevento in turn brought in the bassist from his own trio but perhaps better known as the bassist for Ween, Drew Dreiwitz. There’s a lot of history and chemistry among those three. But as always there are the ever-important dual guitar players.
The interplay between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir was so important in the Grateful Dead. Even in a band that isn’t trying to be the Dead, you need two expert improvisational guitarists to really pull it off. Scott Metzger has an interesting jam pedigree. In the late nineties, as legend has it, he was overheard playing in a New Jersey coffee shop by none other than Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and Phish lyricist Tom Marshall. Metzger was then invited to play with Marshall’s band Amfibian and he did a brief stint with the West Coast electro-jam group Particle. But to tie it all together he also played on Marco Benevento’s album Live at Tonic.
Metzger’s partner in crime Tom Hamilton has played in numerous bands including Brothers Past and his own American Babies. He has also played with three of the four remaining Grateful Dead members. In 2014 he was a “friend” in Phil Lesh and Friends and most recently was joined by Bob Weir at Sweetwater Music Hall in Marin County, California. He was also a member of Billy and the Kids, the project of Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann. There is a lot of improvisational knowledge between these two guitar players and they know the material so well that they are able to let it go.
JRAD has all the makings of a great band, who just so happen to be a cover band, an all-star jam lineup full of history, chemistry, and personal flair. But perhaps most importantly is that the fans have embraced JRAD. Jam fans are highly critical, especially when it comes to the granddaddies of them all, the Grateful Dead. The fact that JRAD is selling out theatres across the country is a testament to how much fans of Dead music really love them. But don’t take our word for it. Give the music a listen and we think you’ll understand what we’re talking about. Here are five jams that prove Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is the premier Grateful Dead cover band.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead will be playing a sold out show at Denver’s Ogden Theatre on December 15. On the heels of that success JRAD has announced a return to the Ogden as well as their first ever headline show at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in April. The Ogden show goes down on April 28, then the band will hop over to red Rocks on April 29 with jazz-funk fusion trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. Ticket bundles are available on AXS a well as individual tickets to the Red Rocks show.
"Dark Star">"The Eleven">"St. Stephen Reprise" 10/4/15 Brooklyn Bowl
"Shakedown Street" 2/15/15 Ogden Theatre, Denver
"Estimated Prophet">"Eyes of the World" 1/26/13 Brooklyn Bowl
"Loose Lucy">"Not Fade Away" 2/16/15 Boulder Theater
"China Cat Sunflower">"The Eleven">"I Know You Rider" 9/19/14 Concord Music Hall, Chicago