Words by James Farrell | Photo by Mark Dershowitz
While the world was preparing to welcome the new with 2015, a familiar scene unfolded at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. A sold-out crowd of hippies and neo-hippies, mostly old with some young, packed the opera hall-esque music palace from wall to wall. A sea of tie-dye clad concertgoers stared up at the high ceiling, joyfully watching projections of psychedelic images and conspicuously rising clouds of smoke.
Since the passing of Jerry Garcia and the subsequent disbanding of the Grateful Dead in 1995, the jamband and psychedelic rock world has voluntarily placed itself under the band’s shadow, desperately trying to sustain the spirit of the ‘60s and the community of Deadheads who practiced peace on earth and communal love at every show. With the passing of another year, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead gave the Capitol Theatre the promise that this past would never be dismissed.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is one of the many contemporary incarnations of Grateful Dead revivals. Like Dark Star Orchestra, Bob Weir and Ratdog, or Furthur, it plays the Dead without claiming to be the Dead: the truest purpose of any tribute band. With Phil Lesh, the Dead’s original bass player, joining on stage for three nights at the Capitol Theatre, the Deadhead spirit was sure to be revived on some level. Yet the keyword in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is “Almost,” and they did more than just play like the jamband legends. It reminded everyone that you can respect the past without lingering, and that the ancient “long, strange trip” can still take new turns.
The band immediately took creative authority, opening with a half-hour long jam that went through Grateful Dead classics “Truckin’” and “Jack Straw.” Fervent solos from guitar players Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton hinted at the lead guitar style of Jerry Garcia, a style that can only be described as “noodling.” However, neither of them adapted it completely. Both Metzger and Hamilton shined by playing as themselves.
Lesh was in his element, smiling throughout the whole opening jam and singing with energetic fervor. What he’s lost in singing ability over the years, he’s more than made up for in his bass playing. Lesh’s bass lines were constantly moving, constantly driving the band’s jamming, and displayed impressive lead abilities in their own right. You could argue that at the ripe age of 74, he is the best he’s ever been.
Through two sets, they jammed with the limitless creativity of the Grateful Dead on a great selection of songs, including the first set’s highlight, “Eyes of the World.” The second set’s “Dark Star” jam devolved into ambient noise, a controlled demolition of floating sounds recreating the “space” jams of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The second set also had highlights in the cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and the sing-along finale of “I Know You Rider.”
The group captured the Dead’s spirit perfectly; that famous sense that every member of the band was doing their own thing, and yet somehow it all worked well together. Yet they weren’t afraid to do things in their own way. This was spearheaded by drummer extraordinaire Joe Russo, who led with keyboardist Marco Benevento to take these classic songs into new territories.
Russo’s high energy drumming style allowed the band to create bigger, climactic builds, uncharacteristic of the traditional Dead sound, which was more comfortable floating in stable soundscapes and taking pride in subtlety. Particularly in “Dark Star,” and the “Truckin’” jam, the band switched tempos suddenly and without trepidation, often finding fast-paced rhythms vaguely reminiscent of modern dance beats. It was a perfect twist of old and new, and a fresh take on an anciently revered sound.
During the first set, Lesh toyed with an iPad controlling his speaker rig, and ran to the side of the stage with bass in hand to kiss a baby, perhaps a grandkid, niece or nephew, or a future Deadhead. The crowd went wild as their old hero excitedly embraced the future, the old and the new continued to merge, and the Grateful Dead continued to thrive and grow, even if only in spirit.
Estimated Prophet ->
Eyes of the World ->
Crazy Fingers ->
King Solomon’s Marbles
Box of Rain
Mason’s Children ->
Throwing Stones ->
Dark Star ->
All Along the Watchtower ->
Dark Star ->
The Wheel ->
Dark Star ->
Terrapin Station ->
I Know You Rider
Encore: Shakedown Street
TheWaster.com | The Cap