Words by Chad Berndtson
Every time you finish a knockout Joe Russo’s Almost Dead show, the cynical side of your brain wonders if you’ve seen peak JRAD; how could this band continue to sustain such a tasty hot streak this long (nearly four years) into what was originally supposed to be a one-off get together among hard-jamming buddies playing a party?
But here we are now, nearly 100 shows into the marvel that is JRAD — not a few of them here in the loving confines of Brooklyn Bowl — and the all-out approach with which Joe Russo, Marco Benevento, Tom Hamilton, Scott Metzger and Dave Dreiwitz tackle, pin and head-noogie the Grateful Dead catalog hasn’t lost a bit of its appeal. The “secret sauce” has been the same since that very first show: JRAD isn’t so much a Grateful Dead band as a group of highly simpatico musicians doing what they do, with Dead and Dead-related music the chosen playground for endlessly malleable ideas and improvisation.
It was clear from the first song on Thursday — the fuzz-garage mid-60s psych-rock curiosity “Cream Puff War” — that the band was ready to paint, and didn’t mind swirls, shades or splatter on the floor. “Cream Puff” got the whole place sparked up and then melted off into a haze of whirled guitar and spooky keyboard effects, with a syncopated tap-tap-tap that melded into a locomotive rhythm that hinted at any number of directions before slamming into “I Know You Rider” — high-intensity guitar peals, and it was only the first 15 minutes of a sprawling show. The band handles “Rider,” one of Thursday’s many blast-off jams, like an un-holstered firehose, letting it snake and spray about the room in wild, kaleidoscopic progressions, only momentarily grabbing control of it before a different soloist unleashes its Rider-ness again, first Metzger, then Benevento, and finally, in a sheets-of-sound eruption, Hamilton. In other words: What might be a slam bang closer for any other band, Dead-tribute or otherwise, is JRAD’s way of warming up and waving hello.
Everywhere came representative examples of JRAD being JRAD. “Scarlet Begonias” went up and then out, transitioning from its familiarly rollicking tension-and-release to a Benevento-led escape out the back that built, built, built and, instead of resolving into a “Scarlet/Fire” bounce, became chugging rock ‘n’ roll, landing in “Bertha,” and Metzger running away with it on the back of a gyrating solo that handed off to Benevento and then handed off to Hamilton and concluded and then fell through a trap door into “Hell In a Bucket.”
Later on, the traditional “Lost Sailor/Saint of Circumstance” pairing finished as an anthemic fist-pumper but instead of closing, dissolved into an at-first inchoate watery jam that went all psyche freak-out guitar and keys flurry and then returned — dropped really — back into the “Saint” refrain. Later still, Benevento climbed his Rhodes piano out of a pie-eyed boogieing “China Cat,” through a tease-fest that threatened about 12 different ways the set could go and then settled, sticking the landing on the three-note step into “Brown Eyed Women,” which after getting a deep-burn workout headed into a gnarly “Space” segment, burbled into “Let It Grow,” and then fought off dueling “Tennessee Jed” and “Bird Song” teases to become “Morning Dew,” building to a shattering climax that left the song ultimately unfinished…and returning to “Let It Grow,” which rippled into the stratosphere, and then became almost pin-drop quiet as yet another long build began, moved into a bass solo, hit back on “Let It Grow,” and yielded “Tennessee Jed,” jammed at insane length and bursting with ideas before “Fire On the Mountain” arrived to close things out. There might have been a “Careless Whisper” tease in there somewhere — this was the kind of show where it was “well, you heard it, sure, it was probably there.”
Who knows how long JRAD’ll last, but every time they open the cupboard of wonders — especially on home court at the Bowl — be sure to grab a spot stageside and bring your dancing shoes.
Set 1 (8:31PM – 9:44PM): Cream Puff War (TH) -> I Know You Rider @ (All), On The Road Again # (SM) -> Scarlet Begonias $ (TH) -> Bertha (TH) >
Hell In A Bucket (SM), Atlantic City $$ (TH)
Set 2 (10:16PM – 12:07AM??): Space ->Lost Sailor $$ (SM) -> Saint Of Circumstance (SM), China Cat Sunflower (All) -> Let It Grow Jam ->Brown Eyed Women (TH), Jam -> Let It Grow % (SM) -> Morning Dew ^ (TH) -> Let It Grow Jam & -> Bass Solo -> Jam -> Let It Grow Reprise (SM) -> The Wheel Jam -> Tennessee Jed + (TH) -> Hell In A Bucket Jam * -> Tennessee Jed Reprise (TH) -> Fire On The Mountain @@ (TH)
E: Drums -> Samson & Delilah (SM)
@ – With a Morning Dew Tease (TH)
# – First Almost Dead Electric Version
$ – With an unknown tease & a Fat Mama Tease (MB)
$$ – Not played since Brooklyn Bowl 2015-10-2, a gap of 46 shows
% – With Tennessee Jed Teases/Jam (Band)
^ – Morning Dew was Unfinished
& – With a “Careless Whisper” (George Michael) Tease (MB)
+ – With a “Duo Jam”
* – First Time Played by Almost Dead
@@ – With a Not Fade Away Tease (JR)
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