There is a slow pace and a sparse population in the Adirondack Park. We have approximately the same amount of year round residents in 2015 as we did in 1900. Having a music venue that is truly close to home is a luxury I no longer have. A fair concession for living here. Hopefully, this clarifies why I consider the Higher Ground in South Burlington, despite the 90 minutes it takes me to arrive from my doorstep, my home field. It is big enough to host most of the major acts that come through the area, except those stars that only play in stadiums and arenas. Arena Rock is costly and, I apologize to my editor before saying this, not always impressed by the opportunity to be covered by Grateful Web. No, Higher Ground is what I need in a venue. As a baseball player learns the funny hops that the ball will take on his home infield, I too have learned the intricacies of my home venue. I appreciate every show fuller because the venue and I have a connection.
Thursday night, I was greeted by a larger contingency of black shirted bouncers than I have been accustomed to over the past several shows I have seen in South Burlington. The empty space in the room a mere 30 minutes before announced show time was juxtaposed by the burly railing off the front of the stage, giving the band a buffer from, what all indications were leading me to believe, a large expected crowd. As 9 o’clock came and went, it was clear that two things were happening: the room was quickly filling up to its sold out capacity and the band had no intention of honoring their announced start time. The latter was on no consequence to most, but as I began to consider my drive home, any reprieve from pre-dawn hours on country roads would be appreciated. My antsy-ness was mirrored back stage. But what was manifesting as anxiety in me was the giddiness of a kid in Higher Ground owner Kevin Statesir. There is something to be said for a club owner, having seen 1000’s of shows, dancing side stage and getting visibly excited for a new band.
When Joe Russo’s Almost Dead took the stage, a quick acknowledgement of the crowd by Joe Russo let us subtly know that he is the band’s leader. This is a band that turns on his sound. Truthfully, before this night’s extravaganza of music began, I had been in musical awe of Joe Russo’s playing all those years ago with the Duo and the way he played drums to fill a large portion of the stage when he toured only with Marco Benevento on keys. When that pair was drafted to play as the second half of short-lived Phish side project GRAB, I was excited at the thought of the precision of the Duo overlapping with Phish’s songs and new originals. But I ended up feeling that these two were comfortable allowing Trey and Mike Gordon to shine. The same happened when Russo joined Furthur. Please know that the skill and precision that he brought to both of these bands was top tier, but he was not able to showcase all of his skills. I was left wanting more of what he did with the Duo. Thursday night, from the very first note of “The Music Never Stopped” it was clear that Joe Russo, in his most dynamic form, has shrugged off the backline of those forays into the music of others to truly lead in a way that is making modern day psychedelic standards and putting a different arrangement on nearly all solos and drum phrasing of the Grateful Dead. He is leading the creation of a new form of psychedelic jam jazz. Its an all new vision of the music.
The sung verses of the rest of the set; Bertha, Estimated Prophet, Crazy Fingers and Brown Eyed Women standing out, were really the most direct connection of this version of the music to that which was originally created three decades ago. The collection of individual artists making up the collective that is JRAD are greater that the sum of their parts, as each can carry a band in his own right, not just be a teammate. But this band is able to work together fluidly, integrating each of their unique sounds to become a collective that exceeds expected limitations of airtime. Sound like any other band we all listen to?
Perhaps it is the belief of the 3 key soloists of the band not to occupy more space of the measure then they need to put their minds eye into the music?
The second set opened with a playful and tight “Space” that I wished would go on forever, but the band hooked on to the catchy opening riff of “Help on The Way” and went slowly though the three song progression of “Help>Slip>Franklin’s.” Again, they shared the mutual respect of great song writing with the Dead, but they were rewriting the spaces and cadences of the solos. They made the music their own. Joe Russo's Almost Dead is a Grateful Dead cover band. Yet they sound as little the Grateful Dead as a band can who is playing the same songs.
In open spaces, Scott Metzger, playfully tugs the band in new rhythmic directions within the strength that is Joe Russo’s lead drumming. Marco Benevento lays tickling finger dances over the straight ahead gut rock of Tom Hamilton. None of the three overstay their welcome in their solos, giving the band a question and response feel to its playing. Never does one of these three players need to be called the lead soloist, nor is any of the three a true rhythm player. It is a constant dance to layer the music so that it is its own rhythm through the choices of the players independently.
The band is comfortable with the music. They are seamlessly answering each other’s musical questions, skirting the outer limits of improvisation. A good jamband can comfortably return from the open spaces of their jams and fluidly hook back into the song’s guiding rhythm and sound, so as to show that the band never lost control. It’s a beautiful symphony of chaos and control. This night, the symphony never ended.
Each song being so full, it came as know surprise that the second set only had 3 more songs after “Help>Slip>Franklin’s” came to an end. With Tom Hamilton singing lead vocals on “He’s Gone”, Metzger taking the mic on “Truckin” and even Russo singing lead on “The Other One”, each wanted his arrangement of these standards of the Grateful Dead song book to be his own. The band could not fail. The near constant smiles from everyone as they put a new take on an old song helped us all see their comfort with each musical choice. A comfort the listener shares. These songs are in a time of metamorphosis.
Knowing that they had filled our cups with psychedelic jazz improvisation and knowing that more would may sour our taste for it, the band took the stage for a one song encore and gave us a release from over satiation with the straight forward sing along “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” This Dylan classic gave a feeling of finality to the night. The proverbial cherry on top. I walked back into the cold night air, armed with the knowledge that the music of the Grateful Dead should never stop changing. I remembered that near the end of the first set, Joe Russo called out a solo, making a large circle with his drum stick, so as to point to everyone on the stage to begin to solo. When he brought his hand back around, it only made sense that he would motion as if he was pulling the skin off his face. In fact, he was telling the band to melt some faces, a detail that no player overlooked throughout the night.
With the busy schedules of each of these musical artists and their insatiable desire to try new and unexpected paths, I recommend that you see Joe Russo's Almost Dead before this band is another chapter in the history of this beautiful music that they are in charge of for this fleeting moment. It is an experience, familiar and new, all at once.