It’s not every weekend that a Grateful Dead cover band sells out a three-night run at the Brooklyn Bowl. Two weekends in a row? Unheard of. Fantastical as it may seem, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead achieved this feat within mere seconds of ticket release; not to mention the opening night, March 9, was only their 100th show. It all began with a “Beat It On Down the Line” that featured a 100 beat introduction to celebrate the occasion; and that’s exactly what Russo and the boys did that night and the next five. Slapped it silly. Beat it (forgive the pun) like a drum, all the way up and down those bowling lanes. There was true magic in the air, that connective energy that comes once in a great while when everyone in the room is whisked away to somewhere undefinable. The first five nights showcased some of the band’s favorites, including “Help on the Way,” “Music Never Stopped,” “Terrapin Station,” “Dark Star,” “St. Stephen,” “Playing in the Band,” and the list goes on. Their first original, “Keeping it Simple,” was also debuted on the opening night, dispelling any such notion that JRAD is just a cover band. Staying true to crescendo, the pinnacle of these almost equally spectacular evenings was the last night of the run, Saturday, March 18. But hey, enough of my yakkin’. Whaddayasay? Let’s boogie!
The 18th began with the same vim and vigor as any other night of the run, blasting straight into an impromptu “Promised Land” in salute to the late great Chuck Berry, who passed earlier that day. California clearly on their minds, “Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion” joined the party to begin the segment that would play right out to the end of the set. “Hell In a Bucket” took us on an enjoyable ride, with a dripping, melting psychedelic jam; quite uncharacteristic for the tune, but it seemed exactly in its place. Guitarist/vocalist Tom Hamilton belted out an immaculate “Here Comes Sunshine,” which transitioned seamlessly into a downright dirty version of the Allman Brothers’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” A gut busting solo from none other than Joe “Bombs” Russo brought us in for the landing of “Here Comes Sunshine,” as saxophonist Stuart Bogie rejoined the boys for a quick jam into “Ruben & Cherise.” The horn added quite a nice depth to the ballad, and stayed on through a tricky segue into “Viola Lee Blues,” which flirted back and forth with a “China Cat Sunflower” fakeout that slammed right back into “Viola.” It isn’t a sad song, by any means; but the peak sound that only JRAD can achieve brought more than a few tears to this grown man’s eye.
The second set began with a spaciously comfortable jam that ran out into a smokin’ “Casey Jones” that melted more than a few dome glaciers, followed swiftly by a sultry bass solo from one Oteil Burbridge. You may recognize the name from last summer’s Dead & Company lineup, but make no mistakes; this was no haphazard supergroup cameo. Oteil didn’t only hold his own throughout the weekend, he stood out as a uniquely exuberant personality in the RAD’s stage presence. His vocals offered a fresh flavor, and I for one was near jealousy of that old school wood grain Gibson SG bass as he plucked and caressed it with expertise unmatched.
Guitarist/vocalist Scott Metzger and keyboardist (and the mind behind the Marcorita) Marco Benevento soloed off of each other in some engaging call and response that transitioned into a rigid “Jack A Roe.” Stuart came back out for a nearly 20-minute “Dancin’ In the Streets,” in a rendition of the classic that left listeners slackjawed in a stupefied awe. The music began to deliver that tangible feeling mentioned earlier during this point, that glow in the pit of your stomach that only rears its head when something extraordinary is around the corner. The segment concluded with an absolutely inspiring “Franklin’s Tower,” as shouts of ‘Hey brother, woah brother!’ were greeted with hugs and big-eyed smiles all around. One of the standout stand alones of the run began with a tease of Led Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way,” with an almost malicious turn into “Let It Grow.” Scott Metzger’s vocals offered an eerily perfect replication of old Bob’s ballad, with boilin’ hot licks to match. Several Talking Heads teases sneaked their way into the jam, including but not limited to “Psycho Killer” and “Girlfriend is Better” before “Let it Grow” drew to a close.
“I Know You Rider” is one of the most frequented Dead covers, but this rendition was anything but cliche. It was the culmination of the entire weekend, one last pinnacle of raw rock and roll. Before the last chords were strummed T Hammy let loose on one of those signature squealing bends and the whole place just went ballistic; a sound reminiscent of the shrieks later heard from the mouths of teen-aged babes that he so competently slays post show. After a few warm words from Pete Shapiro wishing one of his longtime managers at the Bowl farewell, the boys returned for the final encore of the weekend. Closing in on 1AM, a breathtaking “Brokedown Palace” had the entire place feeling beyond sentimental, as wishes of fare you well lofted above quiet, attentive listeners. The a cappella “We Bid You Goodnight” had the place even quieter; the least crowd volume I’ve ever heard in a venue by far, never mind on a Saturday night. Having played it last in October of 2015, it was an unimaginably beautiful moment for those who stayed the entire run.
JRAD seems to have this stigma attached to them throughout most of the jam scene; too fast technical for the old heads, too much Dead for a lot of youngsters. This weekend seemed a little different, a bit more like a “typical Dead show.” Fans by the dozens hopelessly searching for sold out tickets as you walk in, folks from all ages and walks of life inside instead of a specific demographic, drunk old dudes hitting on our uncomfortable girlfriends..it really had the whole 9, as it were, and dare I say the whole 10! Regardless of what you may have heard, just remember that this group of musicians is doing what they do live better than any other group on the current “jam” circuit. Period.