Grateful reincarnation

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead find artistic freedom within the confines of a cover band

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Joe Russo’s Almost Dead playing a sold out show at Boulder Theater in 2014.
Jeremy Williams

In advance of three sold out shows in Colorado this month, there are a couple of things you need to know about Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD). The first is, as drummer Joe Russo puts it, “We are a god damn Grateful Dead cover band.”

“Well then,” he continues, “I am going to fucking prove to you that this is cool. We are going to go out there and work our asses off to make it not seem like a Grateful Dead cover band as much as guys playing a collection of songs and just going ape shit on the improv. We aren’t so pensive about what the source material is as much as inspired by it to go new places that no one has really gone before.”

It all started in 2009 when Russo joined Furthur, featuring Bob Weir and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. It was under their tutelage that he was introduced to the music of the Dead, adding more than 100 “traditional versions from the Grateful Dead songbook” to his repertoire during the band’s four-year stint.

When it was over, Russo didn’t expect to play the music again. “People would ask if I planned on continuing with it and I would always say, ‘Absolutely not. Why the hell would I keep doing this? This band is done. This was my moment to do this and that was great and now I am going to do whatever.’”

But in the months that followed, Russo realized the music had seeped its way into his psyche and become a part of his musical and personal identity in unexpected ways.

“None of us were really looking to do it, but this crazy opportunity just opened up,” Russo says. “There was always something more that I wanted to hear with the music back in the Furthur days — I wanted to have a bit more of an adventurous spirit and I wanted to see what would happen if I played that music with the guys I am playing it with now, with Marco [Benevento] and Scott [Metzger], these guys who are my musical family. I wanted to take some liberties and not have to worry about upsetting a standard or not living up to the way things have been done, not playing the aesthetic that Furthur was after.”

When JRAD first started up, a lot of Russo’s hard-core musician friends would look down their noses at the whole project. But, when they actually saw what JRAD was doing, they realized it wasn’t a cover band offering up a classic interpretation of someone else’s material but the discovery of something totally new, something that transcends genres and brings lifelong skeptics into the land of the Dead. 

For JRAD to pull that off, to turn the Grateful Dead into a musical experience that welcomes newcomers into a long established clique, you have to understand another thing about Joe Russo: He’s a helluva great drummer.

Critics have long hailed him as the “Grand Master of Drumming.” He was “knighted” by Peter Shapiro, foremost benefactor of jam bands, as rock royalty. Fans lovingly refer to him as “OctoRusso.”

Laudations aside, Russo’s skills have earned him a permanent place in the center stage for some of rock’s greatest musicians: as an avant garde musician’s musician in the Benevento Russo Duo, or teaming up with jam band gurus Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon from Phish for GRAB, or with the forefathers of the jamming tradition, Weir and Lesh themselves.

No matter whom Russo plays with, he is able to speak to musicians in their own language, on their own terms, and bring out the best in what they do in a way that is exciting for the guys on stage and for the people in the crowd.

Russo thinks of this as a collective or communal experience, something shared between the band and the audience (“a rare and increasingly important experience in this day and age”) but listening to the way he talks about his music, his family and his friends, it could easily be labeled as good old-fashioned love.

Which brings us to the third thing you need to know about Russo: He’s a really nice guy.

“For me, recent events have been an awakening,” he says. “Let’s spread our wings a little, get outside of our immediate family and really start digging in to get to know each other, to see how we can help each other.

“For me, that starts with trying to see the little beauties around me, in life and in music. Playing music is a cathartic thing and it makes me feel great, so if that can add to anybody’s day, especially right about now, I am honored to share that experience.”