Words by Patrick Lacey | Photo by Mark Dershowitz

There are a number of different varieties of Grateful Dead bands, from cover bands that play local bars, to tribute acts that play full past performances. Even the surviving members have put together a number of different variations. They all have one thing in common: they play Grateful Dead songs. But what makes Joe Russo’s Almost Dead different from the rest of them? I would have to say it’s not what they play, but how they play it. Intense is one word that comes to mind. And when you get a group of talented musicians together with the likes of Joe Russo, Marco Benevento, Dave Dreiwitz, Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger, how can it be anything but intense?

The start of the night reminded me of my old college days, my roommates jamming in the basement before turning it into some familiar tune we would all sing along to. That is just like what this band is, a bunch of friends jamming on stage with some Dead lyrics sang here and there. The band took the stage about 8:15 pm and jumped into a jam that would weave its way in and out of songs the entire set. “Mama Tried” was first, that went into a sizzling version of “Brown-Eyed Women”. Keeping the crowd on their toes, Hamilton and Metzger started teasing the chords of “He’s Gone” before finding their way back into the final verse of “Brown Eyed Women”.

Not skipping a beat, they tore through versions of “Good Lovin’” and “The Wheel” that had fans looking to catch their breath. They got their chance as most others sang along to a fun “He’s Gone” before firing it up again in “Jack Straw” to close the first set. Marco Benevento really did shine here, as he was obviously having the most fun on stage, a smile from ear to ear all night.

The intensity wasn’t about to let up in the second set as the band opened up with “Truckin’”. Russo had pointed out before set-break that most of the band was from New Jersey, and this was the first show the band has played in the state. In light of that, the lyrics were appropriately changed to “Jersey, I’m coming home..” to the delight of the crowd.

The party continued with a stellar version of “Viola Lee Blues” that led into “Throwing Stones”. This was a point in the show where these guys separate themselves from the rest of the pack. The jam in “Stones” got very “space-like” as Benevento and Russo went at it back and forth with each other like The Duo days. It’s in moments like this during a show when a jam gets to a point where you aren’t even sure what the song is anymore. You get totally lost in it, starting to think of what’s next, only for the band to bring it back around and finish it off. When a band is able to do that, you know something special is taking place on stage. And it can happen at any moment.

Out of this “space” led the band into a beautiful rendition of “Row Jimmy” before the closing sequence of “Estimated Prophet>Deal>Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodeloo” brought the house down.

When the band came out for the encore, Russo pointed out that it was Phil Lesh’s Birthday, and none of this would’ve happened if Phil himself didn’t call him a few years earlier to ask if he was available. The crowd then wished him ‘Happy Birthday’ before starting “Box of Rain”. Then, as only Jersey boys could, the band blew the roof off the place with the a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. It was an intense night of Grateful Dead music with a New Jersey twist. Let’s hope these guys cross the river from Brooklyn more often… “whoa, whoa, baby back where they belong.” Can’t wait.

TheWaster.com | Montclair