Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Keeps Brooklyn Bowl Buzzing

To an interloper who missed opening night, witnessing Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at Brooklyn Bowl on Friday, March 25, could have been a bit like waking up on top of Mount Everest without knowing how you got there. Usually concertgoers stay alert for the peak moments of concerts that become precious memories. Night two of this sold-out three-night run felt like one big peak of something larger.

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As a general rule JRAD plays Grateful Dead songs with all the force of a careening steam engine about to jump the tracks. On this night the band proved that they don’t even require a recognizable song structure to reach that energy level, as the opening improvisation dialed right in to the crowd-animating zeal cooked up the previous night.

Perfectly in line with the band’s signature ability to tear the Dead’s material away from its original context and invigorate it with original spirit, a five-piece horn section appeared at the start of “Hard To Handle” to add unprecedented texture and heat to the tune. Having set the tone for a night of “big band” Dead music, the dynamic of the Otis Redding-cover opener was balanced out with more Garcia flavor in “Franklin’s Tower”. “Feel Like A Stranger” took an abrupt dive into a spacey, bass-driven groove that quickly became the foundation of a jazz piano exposé by Marco Benevento. A spicy hot trumpet solo was a highlight of “Help On The Way,” which gave way to a particularly outlandish and adventurous “Slipknot!” A very carefully executed transition brought “Althea” to the fore in place of “Franklin’s,” which had already appeared in inverted position earlier in the set.

JRAD really showed Brooklyn Bowl what they’ve got as an original musical collective in the ensuing extended group improvisation, which called to mind Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis and was shaped by contributions from all band members. Lightning-fast fingerwork from Scott Metzger and trippy guitar skwonking by Tom Hamilton finally coalesced into an incredible whirlwind of a set-closing “The Other One”.

The second set began with a pair of punchy rockers, the mid-’60s novelty “Cream Puff War” kicking things off and “I Need A Miracle” regaining that steamrolling momentum established in set one. The gentle majesty of “Lady With A Fan,” embellished on this evening by beautiful flute parts, asserted itself at this juncture. The presence of the horn section recalled the orchestral flourishes on the studio recording of “Terrapin Station,” but the arrangement was something new and in harmony with JRAD’s high-intensity approach to this anthemic song. The cathartic, celebratory mood prevailing at this point was given some funky motive force with “Dancing in the Street”. A full-throttle “Cumberland Blues” brought the set to an end. A “Sugar Magnolia” encore inspired both daydreaming about springtime sunshine and anticipation of the third and final show to come.

The middle night of this Brooklyn Bowl run was notable for its expansive variety of soloists, with members of the guest horn section frequently stepping into the spotlight. Dueling exchanges of riffs between JRAD members heightened the ferocity of certain jams. Russo seemed determined to bolster every one of his nine fellow musicians onstage with muscular and relentless drumming, often accompanied by ecstatic facial expressions. The audience responded approvingly, to say the least, to this group as it payed homage to a legendary band with both humor and finesse. After an opening night featuring cover song debuts from outside the Grateful Dead repertoire and a follow-up show embellished with brass, it’s anybody’s guess what’s in store for round three.

Setlist:
Set 1: 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

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