I didn’t see the Grateful Dead in concert this week. Nor did I see Dead & Company, or Furthur, or even Phil Lesh & Friends or Ratdog, or any of the other Dead iterations or derivations. No, I saw Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, ostensibly a Grateful Dead cover band. I guess maybe I “almost” saw The Dead. The question is: Did I see something actually better? No doubt that’s blasphemous, I know. But consider a quick take from an admitted non-long time Grateful Dead fan but very appreciative listener.
My friend Keith, the one legitimate Deadhead among the trio of attendees which included Petey and myself, tried haltingly to explain the band – known to many as JRAD – when we met for pre-show beers. “They play Dead songs,” he began, “But, ah, like faster, at like a faster tempo or something.” Okay, that’s…something. “And they, y’know, jam really hard.” Well sure, I offered, but weren’t the Grateful Dead like the Godfathers of jam bands already? “Nah, you don’t understand. They’re like a combination…they sound kinda like…Aw, screw it, you’ll see.”
Prepped with that non-description description we entered The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY, where JRAD was playing their third of three consecutive nights of sold-out shows at the historic venue (now that’s something not exactly normal for a strict cover band, I’d thought). And then they started, or at least so it seemed – Petey and I weren’t entirely sure what sounded like some meandrous tuning-up was actually the beginnings of a song, yet Keith was already deeply entranced, as was the above middle-aged guy immediately to my right, who looked exactly like college basketball announcer, Len Elmore. But after a few minutes of that opening number, the lesser-known Jerry Garcia tune ‘Catfish John,’ JRAD began to come alive, and when they eventually segued into Dead classic ‘Bertha’ they unmistakably took flight (for his part, Almost Elmore initiated about two hours of unceasing manic gyrations unbefitting a man of his, or any, age). The guitarists traded long-form, stinging solos that were both jazzy and, I don’t know, rocking? The keyboardist incorporated soulful, bluesy patterns with fusion influences. The bass player frequently took off on rapid, climbing contrapuntal lines. And the drummer, the band’s namesake Joe Russo, had arms and legs flailing, literally doing the fierce and complex work of two men, and earning the nickname of which I later learned, “Octo-Russo.” JRAD, it quickly occurred to me, were not simply a Grateful Dead cover band, they were an interpreter of Dead songs. Improvisational, sure, but high-energy, dynamic and contemporary. I guess, dare I say, not quite as Dead-ish. Keith had been right, it was just pretty hard to put into words.
The entity of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead has only been around a relatively short time, put together spontaneously in early 2013 at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl as a fill-in when another band had cancelled their slot, and is made up of names familiar to anyone who follows what might loosely be considered the current jam band circuit. Their ascension to steady headliner has coincided with the heady growth of their exhilarating and exploratory reputation. In 2018 Rolling Stone called their performance at the Allmans-centric annual Peach Festival the “Best scene-stealer,” while saying of them, “JRAD takes improvisational jam rock to the Nth degree.” Yeah, that was pretty much what Keith was saying. Almost.