If you’ve ever been to the Abbey on a Wednesday night for Terrapin Flyer, seen Caution rip across the South Side, were at Garcia‘s last show at Soldier Field in ’95, or have come up in the age of Dark Star Orchestra starting out at Martyr’s over 15 years ago, you can’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart. The Grateful Dead‘s legacy and music is a mainstay of the Chicago music scene, and we’re really, really lucky to have such talented people crooning and riffing in the name of Jerry and all that is Chi-town. This weekend we are honored to welcome some of THE most talented musicians, friends amongst themselves, and class-act gentlemen to jam out for us under the moniker Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD). Comprised of longtime buddies Tommy Hamilton on guitar (American Babies), bassist Dave Dreiwitz (Ween), wizard of keys Marco Benevento (as himself), guitarist Scott Metzger (Wolf!, Trixie Whitley), and namesake drummer Joe Russo (every band ever/Furthur/Shpongle/BR Duo), they started this thing as a fluke, just to have a little fun, and here the rest of us are, squirming in our pants for the weekend to get here.
As we discussed in the following Q & A, there are a lot of Dead tribute bands out there. That’s a fact no one can deny. I think the special and characteristic thing about the members of JRAD coming together to do this thing, is that they all come from different schools of musical training, much like the members of the Grateful Dead themselves. Leading to a level of both unexpected improvisation and excitement for these new takes on the classic 300+ songbook we have come to know and love, Friday & Saturday will probably steal your face right off your head. Sorry, Sunday. Without further adieu, the passionate and lovely Joe Russo:
Q: Thanks for chatting today!!! Where are you now?
A: I’m home in Brooklyn, just getting back from celebrating my anniversary (three years) in France.
Q: Congrats! Well, to get started, there are a few crowd-sourced questions from Twitter, if that’s ok.
A: Sure, it’s definitely better than answering the same questions as always (laughing).
Q: Cool, from @jonlerner, “Do you ever take a night off?”
A: (Laughs) Do I ever take a night off… Hmmm.. well, there are many, many months that I don’t, but this summer I made a concerted effort to take most of the summer off. I’ve been out of work for whole summers before, but not by choice. It’s nice to stay home with my family, work on my new record, and enjoy my new studio space. I’m working on my own record, slowly piecing it together, and even though I’ve been “off,” this summer I’m busier than I’ve ever been. When you take a step back you realize you have a whole life of friends, family, and BBQ‘s that can get left behind and shouldn’t. I’ve been working on some other people’s records, too. It’s been a lot of fun.
Q: That is awesome! So you got a new studio? What is the new music you’ve been working on?
A: Yep, my own little sanctuary. It can be tough in New York, especially as a drummer, to fit in a shared practice space from 7:30-9:30 or whatever, not disrupt everyone, and actively get your work done. About a year ago I built it out in Brooklyn Heights. It was about two-three years that I didn’t have a place to practice. I kinda just decided I had to save up and make the investment. It’s a modest room but, I come every day to practice, write, and record. Plus, I can walk there in about 25 minutes on a nice day. My wife also owns a cafe, Vineapple, about ten minutes away, so I can stop there on the way sometimes for some free Americanos.
Q: That is great, and sounds perfect. And the new music with others?
A: Well I just wrapped up a couple recordings. I just had a really fun session with Trixie Whitley, Scott Metzger and Andy Hess and just did another round on an unannounced collaboration that will hopefully see the light of day next year that I’m really excited about. No deets allowed on that one yet. Another one was for a split 7″ with Cass McCombs that he did for an upcoming tour with the Meat Puppets. (They will be in Chicago on Oct. 23 at Empty Bottle.)We recorded it here at my studio. It’s actually the first thing officially released that was recorded here, so I’m really excited about that! They’ll have it on sale at all the shows for the upcoming Cass/Meat Puppets tour. Cass’ band is one of my favorites to play with! Just brilliant. While I won’t be on this specific tour, I highly suggest people going and checking it out!
Q: Speaking of tours, another Twitter question from @rselover : Will there be a full JRAD tour? Questions came in about Philly, and various West coast cities, so I guess everyone wants to know if they’ll get a piece of your new project.
A: Full tour!? Maybe…Well, if everyone comes to the Chicago shows, then absolutely!! (Laughs) This whole thing is a bit suspect. We’re having such a good time, and this has turned into such a fun weird little pocket for us. I mean, Furthur was the last thing that I ever thought would happen to me…and none of us was looking to be in a Dead cover band…..no offense to Dead cover bands. It’s just kind of funny that this cast of characters is hitting the road in this fashion. As far as a “tour,” I won’t say that we’re NOT going to tour. Maybe we could a 10-show-run or something… nothing crazy. I haven’t gone on tour with my pals, screwing off and having a blast in…who knows how long. And I love those guys so much, you know. If people are into it, and we’re into it… I’M DOWN. I think it would be hilarious actually. For all of us. This exact project, group… whatever u want to call it, its like Bustle…it’s kids in a candy store, it’s goofing off with your pals, making – I think- good music…if we’re having a blast, and people are having a good time, then lets do it.
Q: Awesome!! And was Bustle an influence for this coming together? How did JRAD come about?
A: Basically theres a party called The Freaks Ball that happens ever year, that a lot of us have been putting groups together for, for the last ten years or so. Pete Costello, who now co-manages JRAD with me (and also of Brooklyn Bowl), and I were chatting about what we could do this year and landed on the idea that maybe we’d do some sort of Dead thing. After weighing the thoughts of if we should do it or not, we enlisted the Bustle guys and grabbed Tommy Hamilton and called it Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. I always thought Almost Dead would be a funny name for a Dead cover band. We also figured Dead fans would identify with my work with Furthur over the last few years, so we went with it. (Listen to the first show here)
After the reviews came in and it was way better than expected, we just wanted to have fun, and keep it going, you know? That’s the thing that transcends any songbook, when the band is having fun together, and the crowd is having fun too, I mean that’s what it’s all about. And if the music coming out is at least, pretty good, overall, people are psyched on the show, including us. Like we made it all together. We’re music fans above all else. Plus, when you play songs that everyone loves, it’s pretty cool to mix it up, and make it your own, but people recognize it and are interested off the bat. We did the Freak’s Ball, then the Capitol Theater last December (27th), and we practiced a lot and got it all together, and yet again, it went really well..and it was like, “Shit do we have to …do this now?” Also, who plays their second show at the Capitol Theater? We had offers rolling in for festivals and shows, and we had just kinda started doing it, so we had been taking it slow. We started to take the offers slowly where we felt comfortable with what we could do.
Q: That’s really incredible. Talk about something out of nothing! And what about Chicago? These are your first shows off the East Coast?
A: It’s going to be our first gig off the East Coast! We love Chicago, we’ve all played here so many times over the years with all of our different projects. Definitely one of my favorite cities. Plus, the Silver Wrapper guys are old friends of ours so it’s always great to work with them again. The cool thing in this business is that everybody comes up together; the agents, musicians, writers, venues, fans even…and it’s cool to feel that support system. As people change their gigs and venues, there is that constant friendship there, that relationship, you know? The people we’ve worked with since way back when. In a world that can be sketchy and messed up, it’s nice to have friends.
Q: Well, that is adorable…first of all, and second of all, we are all really excited that you’re coming! As far as another Chicago tidbit…doesn’t Marco (Benevento) record with the drummer from Tortoise, based out of Chicago? Would you guys all consider getting together to some drum-heavy collaborations together?
A: Wait… ya! They did some stuff together a few years back…honestly, I’ll talk to him about it…that would be fun as hell. (HINT: PLEASE TALK ABOUT THIS IT WOULD BE SUPER DUPER SICK…my 10 cents).
Q: So, taking a deeper turn into the music you put out as JRAD, are the setlists pre-planned, or do you kinda just roll with the punches?
A: Well, at first, a lot of the ideas came from working with Furthur. I mean, working with Phil (Lesh) and Bob (Weir) has been a huge teacher, obviously. But with Furthur, I’m just the drummer, you know? Of a band playing the music of the band that they were IN. So it’s like, I’m there, I’m playing, but now I have more of a say. Like, “man this song would sound so good, going into this, or this jam would go so well…there” The intention of this thing, is to vary. The setlist is written out, as an idea, but it’s just names of songs on a page. We veer.
We’ve been playing together so long in other groups… we know each other. The guys in the band are such amazing listeners, which is such a big part of music, especially this music. Sometimes where things could get lost in the shuffle, they may not, because we really really listen to each other. We’ve done it together before, and it’s nice to do it with this songbook. Putting out a different version of something I’ve played over the last four-five years with Furthur is fun for me to kinda mess around with a little bit. It’s like when you’re a little kid, left home alone and you get to kinda play with all the toys. The big thing with this Almost Dead thing is that it is just SUPER FUN. We’re appreciative of how people are handling how we treat the songbook…it’s like…I dunno, appreciating the punk rock version or whatever we’re going for here. Whatever you call it, we hold it in high regards and it’s really special. The joy of this, and the Bustle thing even, is that we can do this for a really long time, casually. It wasn’t born out of pressure, and wont live that way. It just kinda happened naturally, and that’s that]s how it’s gonna stay.
A: (Laughs) Honestly, I have no idea! Its tricky waters, we don’t want to overdo it, and we want it to be special. We’ve tossed the idea around, but it’s up in the air. Basically, everyone will find out when we do.
Q: Right on. So, speaking of special, given your work in Furthur, and now working with JRAD, how special was meeting Grateful Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann at Lockn a few weeks ago? Was that the first time you’d met?
A: Meeting Billy was pretty cool. We had met briefly, years before Furthur, in passing, as we both recorded drums for Mike Gordon‘s solo album, Green Sparrow. But we didn’t really…meet, so to say. Honestly, that dude is a fu*^!ng badass (Kreutzmann). The early stuff (from the Grateful Dead), for me is over the top. If I heard that stuff when I was younger, I’d have been WAY more into The Dead. I think I didn’t have the attention at the time, for the slower, more chill, Dead stuff, and that’s what people showed me I guess. I was a metal-head kid, so that didn’t work for me. I’m just so into the early stuff now. When I first got the Furthur gig, I had spent so much time crunching to learn these songs that I never had the chance to just sit and listen to it. Only now in the last year or two, I can enjoy casually listening to The Dead and appreciate it as a fan. Billy is just a total monster (on the drums). Regardless of the Dead connection, it is nice to meet someone who has done something so great musically, and has retroactively made such a mark on my playing… almost symbiotically.
Q: Congrats, that’s really cool. So taking this idea a little further (no pun intended), how do you feel when people ask you if you will move away from tributes, and get back to creating new music like you did with The Benevento/Russo Duo? That was cutting edge stuff, and you’re so creative. It’s not putting down the amazing work you’re doing, but you have to be aware that this is a discussion.
A: I’m definitely aware. People ask me all the time! A lot of people straight up ask me, and I just want to say first, that Furthur is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. Most of my name recognition on a bigger scale is from them, and that is awesome. However, I do new stuff all the time that doesn’t get the attention that comes with some of the things I do with Bob and Phil or JRAD. I invite people to pick up all the incredible records I play on by artists they’ve never heard of yet it’s some of the most amazing music I’ve had the joy to be a part of. I want people to come hear me play with Cass, or Chris Harford or Matt Trowbridge! (Laughs) I think it’s just the Dead-oriented stuff that a certain group of people hear about. And that’s totally cool. I have no complaints here. I’m still committed to making music that is forward-moving, and I hold it to a high standard.
My emphasis is always on creating new things, and while on one hand, I’m frustrated by the lack of my solo output as of late, it isn’t because I’m doin nothing. I can’t wait for everyone to hate the weird shit I put out next year (laughs). I’m 37-years-old, and I have plenty of time. I’m in no rush. Furthur is where it is now, and I certainly have plenty of music coming my way. When my new record is ready, it will be out. It’s hard to get a new record off the ground sometimes. It takes space, time, players… I’m gonna need a 19-piece-band to play some of this stuff live. We all need balance. What I realize makes me happy is playing with lots of different people and making different music, and I’m in a position where I can do that. That’s what I love. No one wants to eat the same food every day and every night, right? It’s like that. It’s not as desperate as it was in my youth. This is a big difference from being 18 and homeless, stealing food, and getting your ONE shot with one band, and when you get it, it’s like…”here we go!” I’ve worked through that and am fortunate to be here now, and so thankful that I don’t have to be doing that, where I’m not out in the cold thinking, “f**Ck, I’m literally out in the cold, what am I going to do?” I have a chance to think about it, marinate on it, and make a decision. When we get off this call, I’m going to go downstairs and work on a tune, and if it hits me, it hits me. That’s the thing, I can be able to be ready for whats coming up. It’s nice to be able to do that.
Q: Kinda like Phish says, “the trick was to surrender to the flow”?
A: Yes … but we know it’s not that easy when you have pressures. It’s a nice pocket to be in that I have flexibility. I’m turning up the heat on myself now, because I don’t want to take forever, but it’s nice to take my time, and take the time to make it sound what it should sound like.
Q: So, getting back to The Duo, would you ever just do that again? Didn’t you guys kinda break through opening for Robert Walter night after night?
A: (Laughing) Yes, yes we did. I was in Robert’s band for while just as Marco and I were getting our start at The Knitting Factory. Basically I asked Robert if it would be cool if my new band opened for The 20th Congress every night (Laughing) And so it went, that The Duo would play, then Robert, and so on. He is a gracious human, so cool, one of the coolest people on Earth. So cool to let that happen and help with both of our careers. It’s not commonplace that someone would say yes to that. He helped start the Duo’s ride with his generosity.
Q: Well, what if you didn’t have to ask? What if it was your own band, and you could just…open for say.. JRAD, as The Benevento/Russo Duo?
A: Nope, no way. Separation of church & state. We need it (The Duo) to be its own thing. We haven’t done a proper gig since 2008/2009, and maybe two acoustic gigs since. If and when The Duo comes back, it needs to be its own thing. We don’t want the JRAD thing to get confused with the rest of our professional lives. We absolutely love it, it’s a blast, but that’s what it is – fun. It’s a Dead Cover band. All of our full creative passions live elsewhere.
Q: Cool, that is a great answer, although, I think I speak for everyone in Chicago when I say we love The Duo and hope you will bring it through our town when it’s time. Is there anything else you want people to know about JRAD, what you’re working on, or just life in general?
A: I’ll just say that we want to get the Dead fan-base out to Chicago this weekend, and to give us a shot. Friday will be our first night off the East Coast, and we’re gonna put it all out there, and we’re really excited. We have a few days of rehearsal coming up, and we’ll be seeing you in no time. We hope everyone comes out and has a blast.
Thanks, Joe. With such humility you wouldn’t realize he’s one of the best in the business. Check out a JRAD practice run before Gathering of the Vibes here where they do St. Stephen> The Eleven> Casey Jones, and join us for a real good time this weekend. I mean, they pay homage to the full Terrapin Suite, which is not to be overlooked as one of the most beautiful and not-to-be-too-tampered-with pieces of music ever made. It’s ballsy and I like it. I like the chutzpah, and I like the jam itself. Inspiration, move me brightly, indeed. Here it is below from the December 27th Capitol Theater show mentioned above. Spoiler alert: From about 17 minutes til just before 21 minutes it is almost, pretty much, BR-Duo-the-Dead… complete with Russo vocals. There is also plenty more where that came from on the JRAD Youtube channel, so check it out.
Hours: 8:00 PM – 2:00 AM; Info Line: (773) 570-4000. Ages: 17+