It was a busy Thursday night in Armory Square in Syracuse. The bars and restaurants were filled with revelers, with the overabundant party spilling out into the streets. Did their beloved Orange just win a big game? Not quite. Today’s premiere Grateful Dead cover band, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD), was making it’s upstate New York debut at the nearby Landmark Theatre. As the clock struck 8, the streets, bars and restaurants all quickly emptied and quiet returned. For a few hours at least. The party continued, and ramped up into full swing, inside the confines of the historic theater.
For many it was their first taste of this revelatory refreshing of the catalog left by one of the all-time great American rock bands. Though many others had caught them elsewhere, as this is a band worth traveling for, cover band or no.
As is usually the case, the band, Joe Russo on drums, Marco Benevento on keys, and for this night on the theater’s baby grand, Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger on guitars, and Dave Dreiwitz on bass, began the night with a warmup jam. It started quietly, loosely based around Tom Petty’s “Breakdown”, before slowly building in volume and complexity and exploding into “Mississippi Half-Step.” A couple lengthy jams eventually dissolved into a groovy space reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” which wound wonderfully into “Estimated Prophet.”
The Dead’s catalog served as a template, a coloring book for the band to fill in with their own color. But, in the true spirit of the music, they had a liberal and creative way with the colors and styles with which they fill the spaces, frequently and almost by rule coloring outside of the lines. Common traditions are bucked, new ones written. The songs sound like the ones you know and love, but the band quickly jumps ship and bring it to a nebulous no man’s land.
“Estimated” broke into a weird and wild freeform space where disparate pieces of “China Cat Sunflower” emerged. Like a puzzle, the different pieces fit together and like that the crowd found itself shaking to a new groove. The band could break the songs down into parts, shake them up, all the while mixing in new on-the-spot improvisations along with parts from other songs. Bits and pieces of other songs, some Dead many otherwise, were thrown into the mixer and given a few more good shakes. It made for a dizzying and disorienting musical experience that left listeners blissfully lost in the haze. Depending on how keen one’s ears were they may have heard Herbie Hancock’s “Fat Mama,” “Farmer in the Dell,” Radiohead’s “Airbag,” Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song,” the Drifters’ “On Broadway” along with the Dead’s “Iko Iko,” “St. Stephen,” “Let It Grow,” and many others jumbled into the pot at various points in the evening.
The traditional “China > Rider” combination was expectedly untraditional as they stuffed it with “Good Lovin'” and “Cats Under the Stars.” As “I Know You Rider” came to a finish, the band had been playing for 90 minutes straight with nary a second of silence. The first set was all but assumed to be over. Though, Russo, after introducing the band, indicated that because of a strict 11pm curfew they were also going to buck the traditional set break. Benevento jokingly laid atop the piano, almost posing for a painting, though it was the band who needed to get back to their painting. Russo announced “Set Two,” and the band immediately kicked off “Row Jimmy.”
Without the break available to reorient themselves, the crowd dizzily jumped back into the mix while the band continued their long explorations for another non-stop hour. By the time it was all through, “Saint of Circumstance” was taken the distance and the usual “Scarlet > Fire” was once again untraditionally broken up with Bob Dylan’s “Sylvio.” The band wasn’t above the traditional encore, and a relatively quick “Promised Land” ended the indoor party at the Landmark, 3 hours and thirteen songs later. The quiet streets outside were once again bustling with the giddy energy of the crowd, and so the party continued…
Jam> Mississippi Halfstep> Estimated Prophet> China Cat Sunflower> Good Lovin> Cats Under The Stars> I Know You Rider, Row Jimmy> Lost Sailor> Saint Of Circumstance> Scarlet Begonias> Silvio> Fire On The Mountain
E: Promised Land