JRAD Turn Something Old Into Something New in Brooklyn

Posted on Monday March 28th in

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead :: 2016.03.25 :: Brooklyn Bowl

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead :: 2016.03.25 :: Brooklyn Bowl
A lot of giddy prose has been spent on Joe Russo’s Almost Dead since the band launched at Brooklyn Bowl on January 26, 2013, headlining Freaks Ball XIII, and with good reason: Not for many years has there been so much excitement over a new band making a very old move, in paying tribute to a well-worn catalog. Except that in JRAD’s hands, it isn’t well-worn, but rather, it’s a wellspring of new energy. It goes beyond the idea that if you like your Grateful Dead fast-paced, adventurous, and bursting with ideas, you’ll like JRAD. Each and every performance by this band is a statement-maker, a stubborn, purposefully imperfect insistence that even as, yeah, well-worn as it is, the Dead catalog can and should be an endlessly interesting and malleable thing.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead :: 2016.03.25 :: Brooklyn Bowl

The reason why this works has almost nothing to do with the Grateful Dead’s music. These five players — Joe Russo (drums), Marco Benevento (keys), Tom Hamilton (guitar), Scott Metzger (guitar), and Dave Dreiwitz (bass) — have levels of simpatico and trust that transcend musical chemistry among good players and approach something closer to family. They know and clearly love and vibe off one another. Hence, they can walk the tightrope night after night and explode the potential of this music at every turn while being faithful to its orthodoxy. That they’ve chosen the Dead as their subject is perhaps just a lucky alignment of their love of jamming with a canon well suited to their mischievous attitude.

Photos courtesy of Ahron Foster

Friday, the second of a three-night run of shows — this time part of Freaks Ball XVI — was high on inventive mischief, with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s subversive side apparent almost from the get-go. After a chugging opening jam that threatened to spread in any number of directions, the band slammed right into “Hard to Handle,” with a full horn section (Stuart Bogie and Eric Biondo, of Superhuman Happiness, and Martín Perna and Ray Mason, of Antibalas) having filled in behind Dreiwitz and Metzger. With an opener like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the night would be dominated by typically horn-ready songs, but as always with JRAD, you’d have been wrong: The horns ended up staying for almost the entire show and figured prominently in a number of songs not typically studded with brass or woodwinds.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead :: 2016.03.25 :: Brooklyn Bowl

This led to some remarkable jams, from creative coloring in “Franklin’s Tower” and “Feel Like a Stranger” to the horns darting in and out and weaving around the rest of the band in the second-set-closing “Cumberland Blues,” injecting that country romp with noisy, New Orleans–style brass breakdowns. It wasn’t all just bleating brass, either. Flutes were on hand for an unusually churchy “Althea,” complete with a downright ecclesiastical electric piano solo from Benevento. The band as a whole seemed to grab hold of the unusual vibe. Everything from Russo’s busted hi-hat — fixed mid-song in the first set — to pockets of lovable confusion among who was going to solo or lead a jam segment next, played into the show and somehow made it that much more interesting.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead :: 2016.03.25 :: Brooklyn Bowl

Picking high points at a show this good is like randomly throwing a dart — they’re almost all high points — so here are mine: the Middle Eastern/Eastern European–flavored jam that erupted within “Slipknot!” and found the whole ensemble coalescing into glorious, corrosive noise similar to what you might expect from a jazz-avant-garde crew like Sex Mob, and then the second-set showpiece, “Terrapin Station,” with payoff after glorious payoff. And what made that “Terrapin” extra special was the slow build into it. The band had come off the snarling blues rock of “Cream Puff War” > “I Need a Miracle” and entered a progression that would become “Lady with a Fan.” Everyone suspected it was “Lady” about two minutes before it actually was, but with JRAD there’s still that twinge of excitement in not really knowing: A band so aggressive can be a model of dynamics, restraint, and patience as well. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead have played about 75 shows, and after this past weekend nine of them will have been at Brooklyn Bowl. And somehow, every time still feels like the first time. “I’m waiting for this to get old,” said one veteran showgoer to me on the way out into the night. “It’s not getting old.” Amen.
—Chad Berndtson | @cberndtson

Set 1: “Jam” > “Hard to Handle”* > “Franklin’s Tower”* > “Feel Like a Stranger”*, “Help on the Way”* > “Slipknot!”* > “Althea”* > “The Other One”*
Set 2: “Cream Puff War” > “I Need a Miracle” > “Terrapin Station”* > “Dancing in the Street”* > “Cumberland Blues”*
Encore: Sugar Magnolia*
*with horn section



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