Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Breeds Rocking Life into Grateful Dead Material

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Ogden Theatre | February 14 and 15
Boulder Theater | February 16

By Timothy Dwenger

Last month, the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary and the announcement of a planned Fourth of July Chicago run this summer made mainstream media. It was one of the biggest outpourings of attention about the band since Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995. Local news channels had reporters stationed at post offices to interview fans seeking mail order tickets. Social media overflowed with threads and jokes about the shows. Even CNN made a clichéd reference where they said that the remaining members of Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — with the Garcia spot filled by Phish’s Trey Anastasio — would make “one last splash — or should that be ‘Ripple.’” (At least they didn’t say “Long Strange Trip,” like 99.9% of other media outlets.)

Had that announcement not been made, the loudest Grateful Dead-related buzz would have been focused on a project that started as a one-off party band, and has now morphed into some of the most energetic and creative Dead-based projects in years; Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. While there are acts like Dark Star Orchestra who aim to recreate Grateful Dead shows in their entirety, and projects like the lauded Jazz Is Dead who take a jazz-influenced instrumental approach to the storied songbook, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead isn’t attempting anything approaching note-perfect replicas of Dead tunes, instead the group is playing them with an exploratory but very rock-centered, upbeat drive that is infectiously breeding new life into the decades-old songs.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead exploded into Deadhead consciousness in 2014 when, despite only playing a few shows, they amazed sold-out crowds in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Colorado. When The Marquee interviewed Joe Russo about the new project it was mere hours after the founding members of the Grateful Dead had announced their 50th anniversary celebration. “I think it’s awesome. I’m happy they figured it out and are doing something to celebrate,” he told The Marquee. “The Grateful Dead are such a big deal in so many people’s lives that it would have been a shame if they didn’t do something. That said, it’s kind of a heavy thing as well because, according to the announcement, this is the last time these four guys will be on stage together. So I’m sure it’s a little heavy hearted but it’s really great they are doing it and I think it will be a tremendous success.”

While Russo obviously wasn’t considered for the big 50th celebration due to the fact that both Hart and Kreutzmann will be playing, four of Russo’s former bandmates will be on that stage in Chicago in July. In 2006 Russo toured with Trey Anastasio as part of GRAB (Gordon, Russo, Anastasio & Benevento), he held down the drum throne in Furthur with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti (who will be handling keys for the Grateful Dead’s final shows), Bob Weir and Phil Lesh for five years, and has been a part of several Phil & Friends ensembles over the last few years.

With a résumé like that, it’s hard to imagine a better person to be leading a project interpreting the music of the Grateful Dead, but Russo is adamant that this was never intended to be anything more than a party gig back in January of 2013. “This Almost Dead thing started as a random party idea and we had no intention of it becoming anything like what it’s becoming,” he said. “No offense to Grateful Dead cover bands, but nobody in this was trying to be in a Grateful Dead cover band; that was not our goal.”

Fast forward two years, and thanks to rave audience reviews and (not surprisingly) openly shared recordings of their live shows, Almost Dead is blossoming into a very real band with a significant draw. They are playing several shows in the Northeast and Colorado this month, a run of Midwest shows in April, and have secured high billing on several major festivals this summer, but it was a three-night run with a very special guest over New Year’s that really put them on the map with hardcore Deadheads.

“Obviously I’ve been playing with Phil [Lesh] now for a number of years and over the course of Almost Dead doing a few shows here and there congruent with me being in Phil and Friends, my crew started getting peppered into the Phil & Friends fold,” Russo said. “Then we got a window into the potential of Almost Dead plus Phil when we were out at Hardly Strictly [Bluegrass] in San Fran and we did a thing at Terrapin [Crossroads] with Phil. It was me, Tommy [Hamilton], and Scott [Metzger] with Jason Crosby on keys, as Marco [Benevento] had to head home, and it was a blast so we talked with Pete Shapiro and Phil and came up with the idea to do it for New Year’s at The Cap. It was a perfect storm of both of my current worlds colliding,” Russo said.

By all accounts the shows in New York were epic nights with inspired performances of countless Grateful Dead classics. A review on the Bowery Presents blog summed things up nicely. “The crowd reveled in each moment that was half nostalgia, half ground-breaking,” the blog posted. “There were sing-alongs for their old favorites and revelations at new discoveries in decades-old material that lurked unknowingly beneath the surface.”

Russo himself seemed to echo the sentiments of the review when he said “it was an interesting mix of what we do and what a Phil and Friends thing would do and it met right down the middle. We had three great nights and it was a special moment to look across that stage and see Phil, who has been such a mentor to me over the last few years and has invited me into this incredible world that I’m now exploring with my best friends. It was a really cool culmination of an interesting year with the rise of this project that was never supposed to be a thing,” he said.

Though only Tommy Hamilton had a real passion for, and “grew up on” The Grateful Dead, it’s not a huge surprise to fans of this crew that this project has taken off since the same group has played together for years and (minus Hamilton) had some success a few years back with an instrumental Led Zeppelin project dubbed Bustle In Your Hedgerow. “When you bring a collective of musicians like our group into a room, we’ve got years of different influences that are maybe completely different than a lot of people in a Dead cover band, a Phil and Friends outfit, or even the Grateful Dead themselves,” Russo said. “I think every grouping of people will have their own vocabulary and ours is one that we have developed through more than 15 years of playing together as a collective. We have not played Grateful Dead music before, so we get to approach this catalog from a slightly different angle and we bring elements to this music that probably haven’t been done before. I’m not saying we are necessarily anything special, but we are five different people interpreting this information in our own way and our way does happen to draw on a deep, collective musical vocabulary that we are now able to apply to a songbook that we have never explored together. That’s part of the excitement for us because it’s a new playground where we can do our thing.”

When they are on-stage together, these five men look like kids at recess flashing ear-to-ear grins as they pass solos around like a four-square ball and breathe new life into a diverse and genre bending catalog. “We are aware of how fortunate this accidental situation is and we are just excited to continue treating these songs with equal parts reckless abandon and respect,” Russo said. “We are having so much fun with it.”

 

Joe Russo’s

Almost Dead

Ogden Theatre | February 14 and 15

Boulder Theater | February 16

 

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