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Published: 2018/07/16
by Matt Inman

Scott Metzger: A Neighborhood Gig with JRAD and More "Collective Consciousness"

Dave Dreiwitz and Scott Metzger, SweetWater 420 Fest, 4/21/18- photo by Dean Budnick

One look at Scott Metzger’s tour schedule this summer reveals just how hard working this guitarist is. This week alone, Metzger will: 1) Play a one-off quartet show at New York’s (le) Poisson Rouge with Galactic’s Stanton Moore, saxophonist Skerik and bassist Andy Hess, 2) Continue his summer tour with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, including a highly anticipated show at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell as part of BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn! summer series, and 3) Play an impressive four separate sets at this weekend’s Peach Festival in Scranton, PA, with Almost Dead, Chris Harford’s Band of Changes, Oteil Burbridge’s Oteil & Friends and a special duo performance with Burbridge.

“The summer’s crazy,” Metzger says, calling from Brooklyn just before heading out west for a few Almost Dead dates this past weekend. “You know, it is what it is with festival season—everything’s going on. Now there’s just so many festivals, it’s unbelievable.”

Metzger, who also leads his instrumental trio WOLF!, is looking forward to crossing the Prospect Park Bandshell off his venue bucket list—especially since it’s just a short walk from his apartment. Here, the guitarist discusses his busy summer schedule, the current state of Almost Dead, WOLF!’s new album, his musical relationship with Oteil Burbridge and even what it’s like to be at a Trey Anastasio Band concert with Tom Marshall.

So this upcoming Prospect Park show is going to be a real hometown show for you, right?

That’s exactly what it’s gonna be. It’s been a real goal to play the Bandshell for years now—I’ve never played it, but I’ve seen plenty of shows there. I live about three blocks away from the Bandshell, so one of the big things I’m looking forward to is just walking to the gig. Like, coming home after soundcheck, eating at home and then walking on back to the gig.

That’s great. I’m curious about your thoughts on the state of Almost Dead right now and your rising popularity. You guys have been around for a few years now and seem to just keep getting bigger.

I mean, we’re just as surprised as anybody, I think, at the demand and the crazy response that the band has gotten. I don’t think anyone saw it coming. And we’re still having a blast doing it. The band was going to be a one-time thing in 2013, and now we’re over 160 shows or something. After the first show we were like, “Maybe we could do another,” and after that one, we were like, “Maybe we could do five more.” And then it was like, “Oh, maybe we could do 50 more.” And so far, so good.

Everyone in the band is obviously very busy, playing with multiple projects—how do you find the time to do even the modest touring you do, especially with runs out west?

I think that all of us have made JRAD a priority. It’s kind of become the nerve center of everything else, and all of our solo projects or other projects that we do have greatly benefited from the exposure that JRAD has given all of us. So it’s definitely a priority.

Was there a moment when you guys realized that Almost Dead was becoming a nationwide thing—in terms of popularity and booking venues—and not just an East Coast/NYC-centric project?

That’s a good question. I remember when we did Hardly Strictly Bluegrass—that was 2014, so it was early on. We played this festival in San Francisco, and from my perspective it was a life checklist kind of deal to play Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. All of my heroes played there. That year, there were all these amazing people playing on all the other stages, like Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, John Prine. And we were a Grateful Dead tribute act sandwiched in between all of these people. It was our first time on the West Coast, and we were going into the main thing—playing Grateful Dead music in San Francisco. They expect a lot out of it, you know? And there were just so many people there for our set, like thousands of people—most of which probably saw the Grateful Dead more than once—and everybody stayed for the whole set. I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me that was a really eye-opening experience.

Almost Dead has delved deep into the Dead catalog, but are there any tunes that you haven’t touched on yet that you will this summer?

That would be a question for Joe—since the beginning, he’s written the setlists and he’s brought the new tunes to the table. Sometimes, we’ll be riding in the van from the hotel to the venue or something, and maybe the radio is on and a song comes on and all five of us are like, “Great song!” Two months later, that song will maybe show up in a setlist somewhere. It definitely sounds super nerdy to say it out loud, but it’s like a collective consciousness kind of thing. But honestly, we’re like 200-plus songs in to the catalog. I know there are more to do, but I think that for the last few months, it’s been more about seeing how many different directions we can take the tunes we’ve already played a few times, which is always the goal. For the first couple of years, it was just crazy. There were so many songs to learn, and every show there would be new songs and, because the thing grew so fast, the first time playing a song could be in front of 5,000 people or more, which is an interesting experience.

Did any of those instances not work out well? You all have a great connection so it probably couldn’t have been too bad.

There have been moments of being like, “Oh, I was pretty sure we were about to go to the bridge, and nobody went to the bridge, so now when are we gonna go to the bridge?” Those kinds of moments. But it’s like you said—the five of us have been playing together in different configurations for so long that when we have those moments, everybody dials in to each other and everybody’s very sensitive. We can massage our way out of anything. And sometimes, those are the best moments. The moments of confusion—where there’s a “mistake”—force you to be off the grid, and you can’t rely on your intellectual, this-is-how-the-song-goes kind of thinking. You have to get creative about how to get out of it, and you can end up in some really amazing places that way. And a well-placed tease is usually a good guiding your way out of something.

Switching to the upcoming LPR show with Stanton Moore, Skerik and Andy Hess—has that quartet ever played together?

No, that lineup has never done a gig together.

How did that gig come together?

It was really just that I heard Skerik was going to be in town, and the idea came up that we should do something while he was there. Then I heard Stanton was going to be in town, and that made a lot of sense, and Hess is a Brooklyn guy as well and happened to be available. So all of us have played together with different bands and different configurations, but it will be the first time that this particular quartet is gonna play. It’s exciting. I’m huge fans of all three of those guys. It’ll be cool. Andy was just over at my apartment, were going over tunes.

Will you guys have a setlist, or will it be more improvisational?

There’ll definitely be a setlist. It’s gonna be way more song-orientated, something completely different from a jamband thing. There’ll be solos and all that, but we’re definitely working from a blueprint of songs.

Any certain genres that you might pull covers from for that show?

We had an email chain that went around, and everybody contributed some songs to the setlist. When you have Andy Hess and Stanton Moore as a rhythm section, you have to take advantage of the pocket and groove that that offers. That will certainly be the focus of the gig—it won’t be spacey jams. Also, it’s one of those gigs where everybody is spread out, so there won’t be a rehearsal. We’ll just do a long soundcheck.

What is it like playing with Skerik? I’ve seen him sit in and play with a wide variety of acts, and it seems like there’s really nothing he can’t jump in on and contribute to immediately, you know?

Yeah, totally. He’s such a monster. He’s a musician that has so many bases covered. I remember hanging out with him down at Jazz Fest years ago, and he was carrying around a book of classical Stravinsky scores. That’s what he was working on. It was like, “Woah.” That is serious, serious music—and I’m sure that it’s not saxophone-friendly. That really said a lot about his seriousness as a musician. I’ve always remembered that about him. And when you hear him play, you can feel that depth coming through, whether it’s some avant garde thing or like a New Orleans-style groove.

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