With a penchant for all things deep-cut, drummer Joe Russo is full of surprises. His musical improv is like an onomatopoeia of the way he lives his life; daring, busy, often collaborative and with a cadence of passionate intensity. His assertive delivery complements his readiness to protect the things he loves, set to destroy anything standing in the way. He is built with the kind of drive and mental conviction people don’t learn, but are born with. Russo’s need to create and express comes through in his playing, and when lucky enough to see it live, his performance is a mesmerizing, visual mainstay fans don’t take for granted.
In January 2013 when his Grateful Dead cover band first played, it was just for fun. Many fans know by now that Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) started as a gag for the Freaks Ball XIII (New York City), and that no one in the band expected it to be the monster touring act it is today.
It seems Russo’s shoulder wasn’t expecting it either. “The biggest challenge I’ve been facing lately is that I kinda thought my career was over for the past two years,” Russo shared in a recent conversation.
“The reason we put all our JRAD tour dates out at the same time so early last year is because I was supposed to get reconstructive shoulder surgery this October (2019). I first started feeling pain in my right shoulder about two years ago on the night of the First Bank Center in Denver, when we had to switch our gig from Red Rocks (4/29/17).
I’d been playing the same way since I was a kid, and all of a sudden I had this pain in my shoulder. It was like, okay…that’s weird. But I iced it, which I had never done before. I knew something was up, but I kept playing on.”
Can’t Close the Door when the Wall’s Caved In
Russo explained that ignoring the issue did not make it go away. We hear about health strains so often with athletes and musicians who are pressured to be “on” all the time, waiting too long to get seen for treatment. Russo was smarter than this, and it was critical that he got an MRI when he did. As if out of a rom-com, he got the test results back on his 40th birthday. He then arrived to his party in a sling, much to the concern of his attending bandmates and friends.
“Dave (Dreiwitz, bassist) and Scott (Metzger, guitarist) walked up to me like, ‘Hey…what’s up?’ Of course I’m like (in a high-pitched, nervous voice), “It’s fine, guys. I’m fine. Everything’s fine (laughing),” Russo said. “But in reality, I was told that I had a completely eviscerated labrum and just chaos in my shoulder, basically. I had the onset of osteoarthritis; torn this, torn that.
I entered a process over the next two years of rehab. All these surgeons were telling me I could not use my arm, and that I had to have a new shoulder put in.”
Russo explained that from this point on, he only used his right arm while he played or practiced, keeping it inactive or in a sling most of the time under doctors’ orders. Among his many talents, Russo was a new dad at this time and shared how heartbreaking it was that he couldn’t even pick up his daughter when spending time at home.
“What was crazy, is I was doing what they asked me to do. But because of this time of inactivity I developed Adhesive Capsulitis, otherwise known as ‘frozen shoulder,’ which means your arm doesn’t move. Like- at all. FROZEN. So, I had been playing concerts with a frozen shoulder for almost two years until October of last year. No one knew outside my band and family, and a few close friends. I didn’t want fans focused on that.
I was doing the classic, ‘Have another tequila to help me get through.’ It didn’t get terrible, but it got to the point where I realized I was going down a really dangerous path. So, I stopped doing that and tried other things. I’d practice with a scarf tied around my upper body to see if I could re-train myself to lead with my left hand. I did all sorts of stuff to to make this work.
I even got a new drumset, you know? Everyone thinks I just upgraded, but the truth is that the new kit is lower to the ground so I don’t have to move my arm as much! I got a smaller bass drum, a smaller rack tom and a smaller first floor tom in efforts to make things tighter.
Nothing was working and I decided I had to do the surgery at this point, which was about a year into this whole ordeal. I decided with my co-manager, Peter Costello: ‘Let’s book this year and I’ll make it through somehow, with Cortizone shots or whatever! I’ll do it; I’ll power through, and then I’ll get surgery in October 2019.’ That was the big announcement that we were going to make at the end of last year; that we would be taking off nine months. That would have been for my recovery,” Russo shared. Fans know this didn’t happen. So what changed?
Mind Over Myofascial
As stated earlier, Russo’s sense of conviction is next-level powerful. The dude wasn’t even tuned into the Grateful Dead’s jolly omnipotence when he first got invited to play with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir’s Furthur in 2009. In the ten years since then, he has manifested a professional career playing their music with his best friends throughout North America, and they sell out most shows. Russo has often professed gratitude that JRAD’s schedule and success has afforded him and his bandmates the auxiliary ability to create their own, separate new music on the side including efforts in Ween, Ghost Light, Marco Benevento’s touring band, Wolf!, Crescent Moon, Russo’s recent album phér•bŏney, and the many faces of his free-jazz style combinations at NYC’s Nublu. For professional musicians, that duality is a gift most only dream about.
That’s what Joe Russo does; he creates magic for his people and he reminds his fans that the world is simply a bright blue ball, just spinnin’ spinnin’ free. We can do anything we set our minds to. Joe Russo leads us by example.
“I decided after agreeing to the surgery, that I would do anything in my power over the course of the next year to avoid getting it,” Russo said. He shared that while doctors told him the invasive surgery would fix his issues, his full range of motion may not have come back. For a drummer trained on 35 years of muscle memory, that just wasn’t going to work.
“So I started seeing a myofascial guy who was giving me the most painful manipulative therapy to ever exist. Literally I was screaming and crying as this guy was trying to break apart the adhesions in my shoulder,” Russo said.
When asked if a myofascial therapist could be compared to a deep-tissue massage, Russo scoffed and I felt it in my soul. “Sure, if the masseuse is basically someone using torture-like devices to break up what is essentially concrete in your joints from not using them,” he said laughing. Just describing it that way sent a painful shock up my body. I could completely understand not wanting to do that every week.
“The one good thing this guy did instill in me was this,” Russo shared. “‘It’s not your shoulder. You don’t need surgery. This is what happened to cause this situation and you don’t need surgery to fix it.’ But then he’d proceed to wrench my arm, and I’d scream and cry like a five-year-old.”
Cactus Says: Read the Book
“So to make this full-jam-band-y, I texted Mike Gordon (Phish bassist, who Russo played with in the GRAB/Gordon Russo Anastasio Benevento arrangement in the early 2000’s), and basically said, ‘Hey man, it is cool if I reach out to Fishman?’ (Jon, Phish drummer). I had heard that he had shoulder surgery too, and I wanted to pick his brain about recovery. I basically told Mike what I had been going through, and would Jon mind me reaching out?
A few moments later he wrote back that I should check out a book by a guy named John Sarno. I immediately Googled him and saw all this stuff like, ‘John Sarno saved my life,’ and ‘I couldn’t walk, I was in so much pain and John Sarno fixed me.’ As I read more, I learned he was an NYU physician who theorized that most surgeries of this kind are bogus, and that there is usually another condition that is mentally-based that could be causing all this pain.
So I went down that path. I got his book, The Divided Mind, and realized there was a lot of stuff brought on by stress, childhood trauma, anger, and various things. To be honest, it made me realize I never dealt with my mom dying when I was eighteen, and I had to work through a lot of those issues. It basically told you to take the time to go back into your life and reflect on things that you don’t want to think about. So, for me, I’d sit at my drums and do that; just considering repressed stuff. I dealt with my shit.
After three days, I sat down at my drums and started just playing. I was like, “Fuck this. I’m not going to be afraid of playing my instrument. I’m not going to be afraid of the pain. So I just started playing, I guess. I started stretching my arm, then playing, then stretching, then playing. I got more mobility and stuff started to actually work again.
This tension syndrome, essentially, that really messes people up… it’s a thing. I’ve now spoken with people who tell me, ‘My father-in-law couldn’t walk, and now he’s skiing.’ I’ve shared my recent experiences with some friends and musicians who have now used Sarno’s techniques with positive results too; and it’s like, son of a bitch! The mind is so powerful.
It speaks to the struggles in all of our lives: they don’t just go away, no matter how well your Grateful Dead cover band is doing (laughing). Life is still really real; the stress of being a parent, or being in a marriage, or having a business, or whatever someone is feeling, is real. You have to deal with this stuff. And since I didn’t, I guess it manifested for me in a very physical way.
The fact that the mechanical scans of my body told one story, but that really wasn’t where the pain was coming from reminded me of this Sarno case study. They scanned X-amount of patients over 35-years-old who had no pain, but they had torn labrums, slipped disks, arthritis, you name it; stuff that you’d think would cause you pain. But since nobody was in pain, it wasn’t an issue. But for someone who is in pain, you go looking for an answer and you get this same diagnosis, and it’s like, ‘Yup, that right there. That’s why I’m in pain. You’re a doctor and you told me this. Better get that surgery!’ I wasn’t ready to put all my eggs in that basket.
If Mike hadn’t given me that information, I don’t know where I’d be right now. What’s funny is, you know, I never even talked to Fishman (laughing)? I just dove right into the Sarno thing.”
Playing In the Band // Daybreak on the Land
“The last show of last year, where we did the hour-long, two-song set in Oakland with tons of improv; that was the first time I had played completely pain-free in two years,” Russo said about 11/11/18. “While we were playing, I was just crying I was so happy, because I was FREE FROM THIS THING. The guys in the band were welling up, seeing me feel like myself again. And that was so beautiful too, because they were so supportive of me during this few years, and I saw them struggling too, to deal with it and deal with me; this miserable fuck in excruciating pain all the time, just trying to feel better. It was such a great moment for all of us to just end the year that way. It was so triumphant to end the year like that and even get to have that moment at all, that it made me happy this all happened. If you can believe that.
It’s like, in life, we all get shit on and hammered with situations. Then we’re blessed to dig our way out, and if you can dig your way out; it is that simple thing. That it makes you stronger and changes your perspective. It allows you to take your guard down.
And that was a huge thing that led to me releasing my record finally. It was like, ‘What am I waiting for? My body is working again!’ That’s as good as it gets, being healthy and making music. Besides picking up my daughter. I can pick up my daughter now and put her on my shoulder and that is literally the best thing in the world. It’s great to get that kick in the stomach now and again. I’m just so thankful for the support I had from my wife, my band-mates, and my friends and family during this all. Because I thought my career was over and was devastated. I was barely even able to get by for awhile.”
We all Belong: Transcendental Meditation and a phér•bŏney Record Release
The name of Russo’s May record release came to him while practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM). Titled phér•bŏney, the eclectic collection exemplifies his breadth of taste and aptitude. With influences from jazz, rock, soul, spoken word, and varieties of world music, this was the first time Russo ever released solo music under his own name.
“The term ‘phér•bŏney’ was just these words that were screaming at me during a really intense meditation one day a year-and-a-half ago,” said Russo. “It doesn’t mean anything. I just knew how it was pronounced (like Fair Bonnie) and how it was spelled. I was happy when I Googled the phrase that it didn’t mean anything.” Russo said once his health was back in order, he surrendered the idea of going with a time-consuming label release. He felt a sense of accomplishment and freedom once he decided to release phér•bŏney independently on his daughter’s birthday, May 20.
On his roots practicing TM, Russo explained he got started thanks to his buddy Eric Slick (drummer, Dr. Dog):
“Years ago I was dealing with some stuff when he kinda came along at the right time and told me to check it out. Once I gave it a try, I noticed this crazy creativity spike coming out of me. I had never written lyrics before, and they all just started coming out! I came across the word ‘perfectabilitarians,’ which refers to those who believe in human perfection.
I was seeing it as a goof, since as humans we are just so completely flawed (laughing). I was picturing this idea of the asshole in the front office right now, believing so hard that all of this is right, and we’re all doing the right thing, and you know…really believing it. Once I started meditating, this all just came pouring out and that’s where the song came from. It was the first time I ever wrote lyrics to anything that stuck, more than a note in my phone or a turn-of-phrase.
It’s interesting now because the stuff I’m writing currently is happening so much quicker, between the TM and the arm thing. I mean, “Perfectabilatarians” was an instrumental with a vocal melody I wrote in 2013, I think? All these songs are from across a long span for me, and the stuff I’m writing now has a little bit more of a timestamp on it for me. I think it will be interesting to see what becomes of the next record: will it be all over the shop, or will it be more concise? I’m not sure. I’m still not writing with the intent of any specific sound, so if I go in and write an instrumental piece, cool. Or if it’s a vocal ballad, that works too. I’m now super interested to see what the connective tissue is on this next one.”
Is it not endearing that he is just as surprised and excited to see what comes next as we are?
On JRAD Chicago, Northerly Island (Thursday July 11)
JRAD has been gracing the Midwest’s third coast since the early days. With the first show off the East Coast back in 2014 at Concord Music Hall, Russo shared that they love coming to Chicago. A Deadhead-hotspot, it’s no surprise.
Though there have been many memorable Chicago JRAD moments, one 2017 moment stands out most: the high-energy, full-Union-Park-spanning, dance-party throw-down at North Coast Music Festival during an unexpected rainstorm while they covered the Dead’s politically-charged “Throwing Stones.” While it was always just one of the many songs in the Grateful Dead’s catalog to me, I shared with Russo that it has become my favorite JRAD offering since they seem so fired up when they play it.
“I think that’s my favorite too,” Russo said. “And I do totally remember that show. That was crazy! It was super fun, besides that we were feeling SO bad for you guys. The crowd. We were looking at each other like, ‘should we still be playing?’
And yea, I totally love that song. The end of it hits home for me every time; the whole ‘rich man in his summer home’ shit.’ It’s like… ‘fuckers!!’ And it hasn’t stopped igniting that feeling for me, in our current political situation especially. It feels like that moment for me in the song is some kind of anger release, and I just start hitting really hard (laughing). It’s like that’s my moment. That’s my primal scream therapy; just get it out, and let it rebuild again.
I feel like we didn’t really play it a lot in Furthur, and it was on the slower side when we did. So that was one we kind of made our own (in JRAD) once we really started playing it. It’s such a great song, and the political content and the meaning behind the song are just more prevalent now than ever, maybe.
And Metzger kills it. I love it! It’s so funny seeing him on stage now compared to when we first started, ‘cuz at first it was like… ‘Tommy already knows the Jerry parts, so Scott can do the Bob stuff.’ It just happened that way. And then he …sounded just like Bobby (laughing)?! We were all amazed, and also like…wow, what the fuck, you really sound just like him, this is nuts. So to see him owning this now brings a smile to my face all the time. It’s almost messed up how it all happened. And It’s super fun.”
No Longer Crippled But Hopefully Free
Russo is humble about all he’s accomplished, with gratitude and appreciation for the balance of things that led him to where he is today. Preparing for a second daughter this August, perhaps the connective tissue for his next album that Russo mentioned will actually just be happiness.
“It’s still amazing,” Russo shared about playing with JRAD. “I still get to play these amazing songs that I got to be involved with from Bob and Phil, which is still one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Both as a person, and as a musician. That thing that came knockin’ at my door… WOW. I didn’t understand how much I would love this music, because I didn’t listen to the Dead back then. And that almost helped me appreciate it more. Because I see each show what this music has meant to people. And now I know what it’s meant to me. And it’s just such a gift.
I’m so happy to do it with my friends. None of us has had an easy go, you know? We’re the same guys who were sleeping on dog-piss-covered rugs just a few years ago on tour. I think about the time I considered selling blood in Madison, Wisconsin. Those were real things! So when I get to look over at Tommy (Hamilton, guitarist), who lived on my couch for two years and be like, ‘Hey dude, this is great, we’re playing ‘Terrapin!” it really makes it all the more special. There’s something more going on for us than what’s on paper. I hope that comes through for us to the crowd when we’re smiling and laughing on stage. It’s not just something ‘we have to do.’ Those are real smiles and laughs. We want to create new information; a new story with this music. We want to surprise each other as much as you.
Right now it’s still joy-filled. And that’s all anyone can ask for in this business.”
See Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and shake your bones on Thursday, July 11 at Northerly Island. Get your tickets here.