reCAP :: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead :: 2016.12.30
Words by Chad Berndtson
Photos by Chad Anderson
Reason #872 or so — like someone’s still trying to count! — to love JRAD: they’re heaven for setlist geeks. There’s the nominal reason to see them — they’re the best and most exciting Grateful Dead band going right now — and then there are all the little moments of lagniappe: things you feel in the moment and things you remember after the fact when they turn up as one or more of the many mentions lovingly annotated by JRAD tour management in the next day’s posted setlist, “tease” this and what not.
Hoo boy, was this December 30 show a heater. The X-factor that carried JRAD’s very first show in January 2013 is the same now as it was then: five world-class musicians, all old friends and, crucially, all deeply in tune with one another, deciding to push limits and not be shy about it, and do that using the catalog of the Grateful Dead — and plenty of cosmically simpatico asides — as a peacock-colorful painting palette.
They’re four years in now to what was supposed to be a one-off, why-not get-together and as they proved yet again this night — technically, the third show of their end-of-year New York area run — that the get-together became one of the elite Grateful Dead bands and a pantheon-worthy ensemble in the jam world. The fivesome’s clear love for this music and its endless permutations seems equaled only by how much mischief they can get into when dressed in it.
And mischief they got into, whether at ramming speed (“Beat It On Down the Line,” a furiously rocking “Passenger”), or choogling speed (“Cumberland Blues,” which rambled insanely before twice devolving into a gnarly blues jam), or psychedelic boogie speed (“Viola Lee Blues,” which housed a happy “Uncle John’s Band and the Benevento-Russo Duo’s beloved “Becky”), or delivery-from-the-void speed, with the band taking an “Estimated Prophet” deep in the first set, marinating in “Space,” and then ambling between verses of “Bird Song” to set up the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and “King Solomon’s Marbles.” It was one wow after another.
And to top it all off? Surprise guests and surprise asides. Alecia Chakour turned up to sing “The Stranger,” then later assist the band on a pair of first-timers (“Til the Morning Comes,” that “Passenger”), and then, later still, slide back in to belt the “Lovelight” the band had been teasing for hours and seemed inevitable — it brought the fucking house down, to put a technical term on it. Cheme Gastelum was also there, adding burbling bari sax to “Viola” and “Lovelight,” and somewhere late in the second frame, there was a curious, but hey-why-not reading of the Wilco/Billy Bragg tune “Hoodoo Voodoo.” Kitchen sink, the band seemed to be saying — watch out, here comes everything, and then that.
Everyone had moments to shine, whether Dave Dreiwitz negotiating hairpin shifts in tempo in that “Cumberland,” or Scott Metzger belting out and then laying waste to “Throwing Stones” — one of JRAD’s signature numbers — or Tom Hamilton leaning into any number of solos or emphatic sets of vocals throughout the night. Me? I like the sneak attacks. I like the should-be-out-of-place Marco Benevento piano solo in the middle of “Shakedown Street” that pulls the entire room into its orbit while the other musicians lay out. I like how the sparsest drums-and-bass prelude to open the show builds subtly, with the other band members starting to surround it, and some kind of song making itself known from a distance, and only realizing it’s “The Eleven” when it’s right upon you, helpless to escape, even though if you’d trusted yourself you’d admit you heard the first rumblings of it five minutes earlier. And I like JRAD’s mighty namesake, who hears new rhythmic ideas in every corner in every one of these relentlessly tread songs, and pushes the band to do something with each of them that we’ve never heard before.
The Capitol Theatre Photo Gallery
Photos by Chad Anderson