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Published: 2016/10/24
by Matt Inman

Joe Russo’s Hooteroll? : Revival and Reunion

On April 7 at The Capitol Theatre, Joe Russo will bring together an all-star cast of friends and musicians to revisit an overlooked page of the Grateful Dead history books, as the drummer will play Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales’ 1971 album, Hooteroll?, along with other songs that point to the jazzy improv album and the great artists that came before it. Russo’s band will consist of members of his former Colorado group Fat Mama, along with some of the Antibalas horns and Darkside’s Dave Harrington (tickets will go on sale this Friday).
The drummer took some time to speak on his random rediscovery of Hooteroll? and why this group of musicians will do it justice, how his time with Fat Mama opened his eyes to a much deeper and freer world of music and drumming, why he doesn’t actually listen to much Grateful Dead and how that Brooklyn Bowl John Mayer Almost Dead collaboration went from friendly conversation to fantastic reality.

When did you discover Hooteroll? and what led you to decide to revisit this album at this time?

I think I first came across that album in maybe 2010. I found it in on vinyl in a record store somewhere on Furthur tour and was really shocked by the sound. This music sounded like the music I normally played! I was still so new to the Grateful Dead world and was deeply in the midst of wrapping my head around all of that material, so it was a really interesting moment to learn more about how truly deep the Garcia well went.

I had listened to it a couple of times, then kind of forgot about it a bit until a few months ago when I was driving around and “Morning in Marin” came on my shuffle. I took me a minute to try and figure out what the hell it was. When I looked at my phone and saw it was Hooteroll?, it all just clicked. I’ve recently been getting back to more improv based, instrumental music for my local shows—you could say getting back to my roots. And it struck me that this album, in particular, holds a pretty cool link and reflection on my personal career story. A guy who came up playing instrumental, improvised music then gaining most of my notoriety while performing the Grateful Dead song book with Furthur, Phil, and now JRAD. It just really hit me as a cool idea to celebrate that bridge and I decided to put a show together to explore those links.

For this show, you are performing with some members of your old band Fat Mama. Can you talk a bit about your decision to work with them on this project and also, for some reasons who are not aware, talk a bit about how you came to meet the members of Fat Mama and settle in Colorado?

I had moved out to Boulder in early ’96 to “go to school.” That concept was quickly dashed after I learned a band called Fat Mama was looking for a drummer. Being new in town, and looking past the terrible name, I met up with the band, jammed a bit and joined shortly after. In my New Jersey butt-rock naiveté, I soon realized Fat Mama was in reference to a track on Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda album. These guys really opened a whole new world to me that I didn’t even know existed. John Zorn and ’70s electric Miles Davis records were mainstays. Horace Silver, Monk, crazy deep cut electric funk records, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon. It was just amazing how hip and deep these guys were. I had a lot to learn.

They got me hooked on drummers like Al Foster, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Joey Baron, Kenny Wollesen—too many to even mention. It’s safe to say that the members of Fat Mama completely informed my musical career from that point forward. Before these guys, I was all Zeppelin and metal and whatever else I was listening to as a teenager back East. I learned about true improvisation with that band. I actually remember the exact moment I became free with music. We were playing in some terrible sports bar somewhere in the middle of some god-awful tour from hell we put ourselves on and we were playing “Directions II” by Miles Davis. I had never felt comfortable playing “freely,” I was so stuck on the grid that I even believe the term Groove Nazi had been lovingly uttered in passing by some band members. This night for some reason, something clicked. I found myself without care, dancing around the music in a way I had never done before. A complete loss of worry or fear in what I was playing. Complete bliss. I had really found something that night. I think that was the first step to sounding and playing like me. I will never forget that moment and I will always thank those guys for bringing that out in me.

As I was listening to Hooteroll? that day in the car, the band just fell into place in my mind almost as immediately as the concept for the concert did. Jonathan Goldberger (guitar), Erik Deutsch (keys) and Kevin Kendrick (vibraphone and percussion) are three members of the Fat Mama group, while being perfectly complemented by Dave Harrington (bass), Stuart Bogie (reeds/flute) and Jordan McLean (trumpet). I couldn’t imagine playing this music without these Mama guys, and I’m so excited to collaborate with this group as a whole.

Along with the album, the show is also billed as “Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia, Howard Wales and Others.” What other plans besides Hooteroll? do you have set for the performance?

Well, the original plan was to only do the complete Hooteroll? record, but the more I thought about it, I realized it was the perfect opportunity to explore a bit of other music within the genre as well. I think we’re going to pepper some other things into the night from people like Gary Burton, Tony Williams, probably some Miles. Still thinking about the perfect additions to the night. Also, you can’t have a vibraphone wizard like Kevin Kendrick onstage and not play some Gary Burton! Some of the Howard Wales organ tones on Hooteroll? also remind me a bit of Larry Young’s tone in The Tony Williams Lifetime band, so I immediately started thinking it would be cool to maybe pull something from Emergency! for the set as well. Maybe a Keith Jarrett tune? The gig is still far enough away for us to dig in and build a really great show.

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