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Published: 2016/10/24
by Matt Inman

Joe Russo’s Hooteroll? : Revival and Reunion

You have been regularly playing the Dead’s music since joining Furthur in 2009 but were new to their catalog at that time. Have you continued to work your way through their archives at Almost Dead plays more songs and, if so, what are some of the resources you use to discover some of their overlooked corners?

To be honest, not really. I learned somewhere around 200+ songs in my time with Furthur. I don’t think there’s much of a lack of information to pull from, but I do think there’s unlimited potential to reimagine what that information is. I don’t listen to the Grateful Dead often. When I do, it’s usually records, because I LOVE their records.

When I was learning all of this for Furthur, I was so deep in the weeds that I couldn’t have listened to this music casually if I wanted to. It was a deep and grueling learning process, one that I’m very proud of, looking back. After learning all of these tunes, I went out and played them for five years with Furthur. Tell you what I wasn’t listening to in my downtime—hell, I barely even listened to music with guitars for the first two years in that band. I think at this point, it’s not really about finding any unturned stones in the music that’s already been created, but in the improvising itself. I love writing set lists for [Almost Dead]. I think there’s a creative arc there that can be explored like crazy. Working up different song combinations, etc. Adding songs to the show that have nothing to do with the Dead’s catalog (e.g. “Writing A Novel,” “Hippy Dream,” “Vampire Blues,” “Fortune Teller,” etc.) has benefit too, and I think we will be continuing that trend going forward. It’s fun to find songs that can fit in this universe that can make sense. It keeps everyone’s ears fresh.

For this Hooteroll? show, you are also incorporating Dave Harrington, with whom you have played as of late, and the Antibalas horns. Can you talk about how you came in contact with those musicians and what made them a good fit for Hooteroll? ?

Well, I’ve known Bogie and Jordan now for quite some time. Stuart a little longer maybe. Those guys make up my favorite horn section! We spent a lot of time working together on The Complete Last Waltz concert we do most years (this year it’s 11/23/16 at The Cap) and have since had that revolving section (including Raymond Mason, John Altieri, Martín Perna, Eric Biono and Matt Bauder) perform with JRAD a few times. They always bring incredible energy and deep musicality every single time!

As far as Dave goes, he and I first played together when Cass McCombs and I sat in with Alex Bleeker and The Freaks at Brooklyn Bowl while they were doing some Dead stuff. He and I didn’t get to hang much that night, but I soon ended up on a Nicole Atkins recording session with Metzger, Binky Griptite and Harrington on bass. This guy is such an incredible musician. He’s a monster guitarist and sonic tone-smith as most people who know him know, but this guy is a crazy good bass player. People went out for a smoke break and he and I proceeded to just start playing this crazy, free improvisation out of nowhere. It was a pseudo-soul type session, so it wasn’t the obvious influence to ignite our little free walk, which made it extra fun. I remember thinking, “Jesus, this guy rules.” He later joined me for a duo improv show during my residency at Threes Brewing in Gowanus last year under my Icy Bridge moniker. It was beautiful. Not a word said between us about anything music. We just played for 90 mins or so and it was effortless. He’s just one of those guys, much like Goldberger and Deutsch, et al. I’m really excited to bring these guys together. I have a feeling there will be some beautiful chemistry.

Is this a completely one-off performance, or are there ideas in the works for more of these sorts of shows featuring an unearthing of additional overlooked Garcia or Dead works?

I’m hoping this won’t be the last time this group of humans play together, but I’m not looking to unearth anything or delve any deeper into the shadowlands of the Grateful Dead. This record just stuck out as something cool to explore which led to the excitement of playing some other material too. I think I’m kind of selfishly booking this show for me. There’s something very reflective about it, like I said before. It’s a really cool bridge of where I started my professional career, where it’s taken me and how seemly I’m starting to return.

Last week, Almost Dead welcomed to unique guests: John Mayer and your longtime collaborator Chris Harford. How did those sit-ins come about and what were your thoughts on them?

Well with John, he was just chilling backstage at Brooklyn Bowl when we got up after our acoustic set. He was super nice and we just starting chatting and making each other laugh a bunch. That’s always a good sign. After hanging for a good 20 minutes, I asked if he’s like to sit in on anything. We looked over the setlist and instead of finding a tune he knew or wanted to play on, I just said, “Screw it! If we’re gonna do this, let’s do it. Let’s have you up on the whole set.” It was a fun moment. A very quick bonding session into playing. I was impressed that he was excited to get up there and not worry too much about songs he might not know well or has maybe never even heard before. Those are the people I like to play music with.

Chris Harford is one of the most amazing and influential musicians I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life. Dave [Dreiwitz] and Scott [Metzger] have been playing with him forever, and I was lucky enough to be brought into The Band Of Changes fold a good 10 plus years ago. Chris is just one of those people whose energy and passion for what he’s doing is contagious. I have rarely had more fun on stage than when I’m playing with The Band Of Changes. It’s raw, pensive, playful, painful, spirited and violent all wrapped up in one thing. I often credit playing with Chris as being a necessary part of my musical puzzle that led me to be able to do the Furthur gig. Chris thought me how to play with a singer—how to shut the hell up behind the song when I should shut the hell up—and to play with a feel I had little comfort in before my tenure with The BOC. Chris and I along, with Scott and Dave and an incredible cast of amazing musicians, had just recently completed Chris’ new record, Horn Of Plenty, and I was listening to it on a long drive and was overwhelmed with emotion while hearing Chris deliver his full heart on every song. We did a pretty great cover of Neil Young’s “Hippie Dream” on that record, and I had this vision of Chris joining us on stage with JRAD to deliver a rendition to close out the run. People need to know Chris if they don’t. He’s a true force.

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