If the Brooklyn Bowl ever decides to create a Hall of Fame, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) can be sure to add “Fall Ball 2” to their list of accomplishments. As Saturday night wrapped up the sold out three-show run for this incredible quintet, I will non-apologetically say that they are the most important “cover band” in the world and are potentially better than anything Grateful Dead related today. The Bowl was where they capitalized on their first run as a newly developed powerhouse and years later, this all-star side project has become nationally recognized and a force to be reckoned with.
“Blues for Allah” welcomed the crowd to the show. The Dead rarely performed the spacey and complex composition live, which JRAD seems to greet as a challenge and ambitiously took the “Blues” to another level before stepping into a starry “Eyes of the World.” A delicate transition into “Minglewood Blues” was highlighted by Scott Metzger’s fiery guitar solo turning into the first fist-pumping barn-burner of the night. The band slowly eased into “The Wheel” with an extended jam taken over by Tom Hamilton in between the first and second verses. I couldn’t help getting chills as the five pieces screamed out the lyrics “bound to cover just a little more ground.” Observing the usual peaks and valleys of “The Wheel” from a viewpoint that only JRAD could capture was truly a magical experience and one of the highlights of the first set. The breathtaking transition into “Ramble On Rose” got the predictable crowd explosion as “just like New York City” was sung to their hometown audience. There was a Tom Hamilton lyrical mishap but with the room in a trance, nobody seemed to give a flying flub.
Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” was technically the night’s first cover that this cover band covered (make sense?). The cowboy song gave the thirsty crowd a few short minutes to grab a beer before returning for the otherworldly “Morning Dew.” The unusually energetic intro to the tune made some Heads scratch their beards but the euphoric meltdown in the middle orchestrated by Joe Russo’s team-captain drumming leadership was as mellow as it gets on a Saturday night. The always-powerful refrain was given some extra juice by Dave Dreiwitz’s bass bombs shaking the rafters as the first set came to an impressive close.
The second set got asses shaking right off the bat with “Crazy Fingers” and I am pretty sure you could actually smell the reggae influenced magic in the air. Another incredibly silky transition led to the monster “Truckin'” and once again the crowd showed some extra excitement in the lyrical reference to New York. The band also got a kick out the lyrics “set up like a bowling pin” which was evident by their ear-to-ear smiles as they exchanged glances. Joe Russo instigated a quick “The Other One” tease to keep the set list note takers on their feet, but the scribes weren’t disappointed with the next rarity, Donny Hathaway’s “Magnificent Sanctuary Band” popularly performed by the Jerry Garcia Band.
“Help On The Way> Slipknot” was the jazzy cherry on top of the second set sundae and gave Marco Benevento a chance to have his wings spread bright on the organ. Where Hamilton vocally shined during the first section, Benevento added a haunting solo during the thick of the jam. While many came to expect a glowing and upbeat “Franklin’s Tower” to be the other piece of bread to this incomplete sandwich, Benevento and Russo teamed up to create an eerie transition into “Estimated Prophet” which was reminiscent of an early Pink Floyd sample. Benevento used an effect that sounded like a spaceship in Atari’s Galaga being abducted by a larger spacecraft and the retro noise was very suitable at this point in the night. The first guest appearance came during the set closer as Chris Harford (Band of Changes) joined the boys for Neil Young’s “Hippie Dream” off the 1986 album, Landing on Water. The gritty and bluesy piece gave each member the instrumental spotlight for a moment before they stepped off stage.
The encore was an unannounced nod to a long time friend and JRAD enthusiast that recently passed away. “He Was a Friend Of Mine”, a traditional folk song popularized by Bob Dylan was performed acoustically as the members displayed their first sorrowful tone on stage since “Morning Dew.” This version is not to be confused with the “He Was a Friend of Mine” cited in Grateful Dead set lists throughout the mid to late 1960’s and felt more like something you may hear off a Garcia/ Grisman compilation. While the somber acoustic tune mourned the loss of a loved one, “Not Fade Away” celebrated their friend’s life and memory. The boys were back on their electric instruments as half the crowd “air keyed” along with Marco. Seasoned Deadheads began the “Not Fade Away” ending clap-chant combo along with the band, which echoed for a solid five minutes even after they left the stage. Security opened the exits encouraging fans to leave, but the community energy was keeping everyone warm inside and sure enough, the group came back for a surprise second encore, “Bertha” to cap off an incredible evening.
As the house music played and the audience finally began to exit the venue, I couldn’t help but stare at the vintage poster that has hung above the side doors since the early days of the Brooklyn Bowl. While the band’s title bares the description “Almost Dead” the words next to this mystical werewolf poster read “Real, Alive” and after a throw down like Saturday night, I think we can all side with the wolf.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is covering a little more ground at the Brooklyn Bowl on December 29th before taking a short trip north for their two night New Year’s run at the Capitol Theatre on December 30th and 31st. Tickets are going fast and after this past weekend they are sure to sell out soon!