"Keeping It Simple": Joe Russo on JRAD and Hooteroll?
Photo by Dino Perrucci
When Joe Russo’s Almost Dead were conceived for the Freaks Ball, the annual party thrown by Google Groups community NYC-Freaks, the members of the quintet thought of it as a fun, no-pressure, one-time-only show. But, four years and just over 100 shows since their debut, JRAD have grown into one of the most sought after new acts on the jamband and festival circuits. And, in many ways, Almost Dead is the culmination of a scene that has existed since Russo (drums) first befriended Scott Metzger (guitar), Dave Dreiwitz (bass) and Tom Hamilton (guitar) and reconnected with his middle-school pal Marco Benevento (keyboards) while playing Downtown New York clubs like Wetlands, Tonic and the Knitting Factory in the early 2000s.
The five musicians’ long, intertwined musical history has also helped JRAD avoid the trappings of an average Grateful Dead cover band and bring the Dead’s storied songbook into new, high-energy, punk-rock terrain. Shortly after JRAD celebrated their 100th show during a six-night run at their home venue of Brooklyn Bowl New York, Russo discussed JRAD’s triple-digit milestone, the impact of recent guests like Stuart Bogie and Oteil Burbridge and his decision to tackle Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales’ oft-forgotten Hooteroll album at Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capitol Theatre this Friday.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead recently celebrated their 100th show by debuting a new, original song. Can you walk us through the creation of “Keeping it Simple,” and do you plan to introduce more original material into the band’s repertoire?
I actually wrote that song for Furthur to play back in 2012. I had worked up the starting drumbeat as an independent exercise—as a way to confuse my limbs. It did. After messing with some different harmonic concepts on top, it ended up where it is today. I had all of the music done, and it didn’t sound anything like other stuff I had written, so it occurred to me that it might make a good Furthur song. Mind you, this is a good while before the birth of JRAD, so it’s actually pretty neat that [at that time] I brought the music to Tom Hamilton to flesh it out, as he added the vocal melodies and lyrics. Tommy and I agreed on the idea that it would be sung by Bob [Weir]. It ended up on a Furthur rehearsal schedule a couple of times, but it fell to the side after the original material era of Furthur dried up. After years on the shelf, JRAD made slight attempts at fleshing it out, but it wasn’t until show 100 that we pulled the trigger. I thought it would be funny for our band to debut our first original material at our 100th show.
I certainly like the idea of adding more material. We’ll see what happens—probably [we’ll debut another original] next time one of us writes something that seems to work more for JRAD than any of our other projects. Or, maybe, we’ll play something new at show 200.
Almost Dead successfully made it six nights at Brooklyn Bowl without repeating a song, which is a testament to the breadth of your catalog. As you did deeper into the Dead’s repertoire, are their certain corners of the band’s songbook you hope to weave into future Almost Dead setlists?
At this point, I feel really great about the amount we’ve tackled. At first, my idea was to stick to the really early stuff like “Cream Puff War” and “Alligator.” I’ve always really loved that violent, punk-feeling energy that the Dead supplied on that stuff. It felt a little closer to where we all live, as musicians, for a starting point. As this thing has now turned into something none of us planned or expected, we’ve had to keep adding material if we were going to actually be able to play different shows.
I’ve loved seeing Scott really take hold of the Bobby material. At our first show, we didn’t really have the traditional “Jerry Guy” and “Bobby Guy.” We were just playing the songs—I actually sang “Franklin’s Tower” and “The Other One” that night. Again, this was supposed to be a one-time show. We did, however, realize, “Holy shit, Scott kind of sounds like Bobby.” Of course, as this band gained steam, we’ve become a little bit more “standardized” with Tommy handling most of the Garcia stuff and Scott handling most of the Weir and Pigpen material. Seeing Scott’s face when I would add songs like “Hell In A Bucket” to our setlist was pretty awesome. It was kind of like, “What the hell is this?” and “I get it!” Those songs are actually pretty strange when you think about it. Over time, though, we really saw Scott ingest these tunes, and now he has a full command and really “gets” where Bob was coming from.
More to your question, I’m not sure if there is any area I’m lusting to unearth at this point. There are a few more songs that I’d love to see added, but we have a pretty deep book at this point. I’d like to see how far we get into those. More than adding more Dead, I love the idea of adding more out of left field material that the Dead never played. I’m sure that will continue.
In a few days, you will revisit Jerry Garcia’s_Hooteroll_ album [which Garcia recorded with Howard Wales in 1971], at the Capitol Theatre. What have you learned about Garcia’s style by rehearsing for that show, and have you felt it change your approach to Almost Dead in any way?
Strangely, Hooteroll? is as comfortable as I could be playing any sort of Garcia-involved material. I lived in an instrumental, improvisational world for so long before my Dead connection. Really, the things that people actually love about JRAD are more based in that influence than a traditional take on the Grateful Dead. That “style” of playing is the thing that makes JRAD sound the way we do. Most of us come from that world, so when we go off on our explorations, I’d say it’s actually way more Hooteroll? -like than Dead-like.
You threw in a few creative covers during Almost Dead’s Bowl run, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and “Summer Nights” from Grease . How did those two unexpected songs enter the repertoire?
“Born To Run” wasn’t on the setlist until the day of that show. We were soundchecking, and our friend Stuart Bogie was joining us as a special guest. Tommy just looked over to me and was like, “Um, we have a sax? Soooo, ‘Born To Run’?” We were just like, “OK!” We had played it for an encore one time a couple of years ago, but with Dave. Poor Oteil [Burbridge] was like, “We’re playing what now?” Being the absolute professional and incredible badass that he is, he gave it a quick listen, sketched out a little cheat sheet and we played it that night.
As far as “Summer Nights,” that was just a goofy little thing that happened onstage. Most of these “teases” aren’t planned. We’re all just up there, listening to each other and not being too serious about anything. If something sounds like a Duo tune, then we might end up getting into that Duo tune. If it sounds like Zeppelin, then odds are we will mess around with it for a minute. If it sounds like “Summer Nights,” then God damn it, we’re gonna play “Summer Nights.” I’d say 95% of these other songs we find ourselves in are just in-the-moment blips that make us laugh.
As you mentioned, Allman Brothers/Dead & Co. bassist Oteil Burbridge subbed for Dave during the second weekend of Almost Dead’s recent Bowl run. Though both very accomplished players with ties to the Dead world, they also have very different styles. How did Oteil’s playing change Almost Dead’s rhythmic feel during that second weekend?
I’ve been so lucky to play with so many incredible bass players in my life, and getting to play with Dave Dreiwitz and Oteil Burbridge in the same week, with the same band, was a great gift. Dave and I have been playing together for over 15 years, so there’s a deep, unspoken connection that we have that is only built out of playing together that long. We’ve been a rhythm section in so many different situations, so we really know how each other plays. With Dave, I can really go more nuts. He has this old-school R&B feel that stays more to a traditional “bass player” world. He gets out there for sure, but you can always count on him to be giving you the meat and potatoes that a band like JRAD needs to keep us from spinning out of reason. He’s the dependable rock that we all rely on.
When you throw someone like Oteil in, you’re getting a whole other side of the instrument. His super deep understanding of harmony and rhythm lends itself to a more “featured” role in any band he joins. While he is an absolutely tremendous bass player in the classic sense, he is also able and eager to explore the outer realms of his instrument in nontraditional ways. There were plenty of moments during his weekend where I would just stop playing so I could sit there and listen to him speak. I also loved that he was willing to split his time between his six-string bass and my vintage Gibson four string with flat wounds. He was so cool about giving that a try, as he knew I was really into those tones. Of course, he absolutely killed it on both. I personally love to be put in less-than-optimal situations with equipment. Having some limitation from what I’m normally used to has always brought out new and different things in my playing. Aside from the beloved vintage bass tones, I was secretly really excited to hear what he would do on an instrument with a couple less options built in. He was incredible, and it felt really special when he would go to the six string on some songs. It really made a sonic statement and gave a feeling of even more options over the course of the three-day run.