Existensial Improvisation | Mom, Mother Nature & Joe Russo's Almost Dead

By: Carmel O'Farrell - @carmelocorn

How appropriate that Mother Nature played a major role in a concert planned with my mom.

Jambands are known for improvising, so the members of the Joe Russo's Almost Dead team weren't too far out of their comfort zone when JRAD's first headlining Red Rocks show was canceled at the last minute due to inclement weather.  Like the band, management kicked it into high gear trying to find a suitable indoor replacement to keep fans like myself dancing that night. 

But I'd be lying if I didn't say the venue change was a huge bummer. I just recently moved out to Colorado and I've only caught a couple shows since I've lived here. Like most who attended the JRAD show, this event was slotted to kick off my Red Rocks season, but the show was ultimately relocated to the 1stBank Center in Broomfield Colorado.

The space is a multi-use arena located just outside of Denver and big enough to host around 6,500 people (String Cheese Incident have hosted New Year's concerts there the last several years). With a capacity about 3,000 seats less than Red Rocks, the show actually sold out soon after the venue change was announced and the secondary market immediately intensified. 

Luckily, I had already purchased two tickets: one for myself and one for mom. That's right, mom was visiting Colorado and I made the call to bring her to a show with me. Since she had never been to a concert with me before, I thought Red Rocks would make it a very special memory for her. 

While I wouldn't dream of taking her to shows that are (ahem) more acquired tastes, the music of the Grateful Dead is different.  it's undeniably universal and in the hands of JRAD seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring her into my world, if only for one night.

In typical mom fashion, we got to the venue super early in order to beat the lines. She had already told me that she planned on sitting for most of the show so we'd need to find good seats -- not too many stairs to go up and close to the bar. If anything, she is a woman who knows what she wants. 

We found the perfect spot at the top of the bowl, the highest you could go and about as far away from the speakers as possible. There were padded folding chairs and a railing for our drinks. We were almost level with large orb-shaped Chinese lanterns that hung from the rafters above the arena. She declared it the perfect spot and as long as she was happy, I was happy.

Opening up for JRAD was Medeski Martin & Wood who, remarkably, had never played a headlining slot Red Rocks before. Even with the disappointing relocation, MMW played a set worthy of the hallowed grounds in Morrison. 

Meanwhile, my mom really seemed to enjoythe all-instrumental set -- she didn't have to act like she knew the songs. While i was completely in my element taking in this sweet, adventurous jazz, it had clearly challenged mom to listen closer as well. In fact, mom said "it sounded like wind chimes" which was a fairly magnificent comparison. Much like abstract art, the beauty of jazz is in the ear of the listener and each ear has different tastes and memories to evoke.

There would be plenty more for us to chew on throughout the night.

JRAD's set started with "Shelter From the Storm" a Bob Dylan cover from Blood On The Tracks and damned if mom actually called this Almost Dead debut before I could.

But when it came down to the actual Dead songs, I had her beat. At one point during the first set she asked if the band was going to play any of their own songs.

This led to a discussion about each band member, their individual careers, and how JRAD is the light shining on each and every one.

JRAD consists of Dave Dreiwitz (bass), Tom Hamilton (guitar, vocals), Marco Benevento (keys), and Scott Metzger (guitar, vocals). The band's leader, and drummer, Joe Russo, sits comfortably behind the kit where he commands his bandmates with an inspiring framework for each song -- setting them up for an adventure through improvisation with songs that have been played out live thousands of times before.

The reason this "cover band" is so good is because it hardly fits that mold at all. The band's arrangement of each song is so fresh and modern -- Dead fans looking beyond their dusty tape collections are tickled with vigor as these songs have morphed into beautiful monsters.

The chemistry between Marco Benevento and Joe Russo is magnetic, yet enigmatic. It wraps around you like burning insence -- lingering and haunting, much like Robert Hunter's lyrics, each tune unravels additional meaning that shines through every note they play.

In the end, mom couldn't quite grasp all the layers at work here, but I couldn't help but feel grateful that she was trying to understand my world. We had a lot of time to talk and I explained to her the idea of "surrendering to the flow". She commented on how everyone danced throughout the whole night and felt like the only one sitting at times.

I've been going to shows like this for well over a decade and there is an undeniable inclusiveness that keeps people coming back for more -- and I think that's what came through the most. It is almost as if we understand each other on a deeper level and somehow feel connected just by sharing the same experience. Some describe it as "magic" but I prefer the word "existential", revealing something present in every fiber of each of us.

Given the size and circumstance of what was occuring, the band pulled out all the stops at their first ever arena show. Members of MMW joined them for "Space" > a wild "Dark Star", with frequent collaborator Stuart Bogie (sax, flute & clarinet) also sitting in for most of the second set. Other highlights included an expansive "Terrapin Suite" and a double encore that eventually ended the night with the house lights turned on for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." 

It was their longest show to date, clocking in at nearly three hours and forty-five minutes worth of music.

It is hard to say if the same script would have been followed at Red Rocks, but with a result like this, could it have really been that important in the first place?

I don't know if I will ever get my mom to participate in a show like this again, but I am glad we got to share this experience at least once.  For when you bring this community of people together under any circumstances, we all just kind of improvise just to get to that special place.

It turns out that a future JRAD Red Rocks was announced for August 31st (the Thursday before Phish at Dick's) and that bassist Dave Dreiwitz would be replaced by Oteil Burbridge of Dead & Co.

Peter Costello's "Box Score"

Show #108

JRAD ~ 4/29/17
1st Bank Center
Broomfield, CO


Set 1 (8:39PM - 10:17PM)

Shelter From The Storm @ (TH) ->
Bertha >
Let It Grow ->
No Quarter Jam # ->
Help On The Way >
Slipknot! $ >
Throwing Stones 
Must Have Been Roses
Gonesville % (SM) -> 
Shakedown Street ^

Set 2 (10:45PM - 12:53AM) &&

Morfbeats & ->
Space *->
Dark Star + ->
Half Step ->
Estimated Prophet ->
Terrapin Suite >
The Other One >
Eyes Of The World @@


One More Saturday Night ->
Cold Rain & Snow Jam ## ->
One More Saturday Night Reprise ##
Not Fade Away $$ ->
Tequila Jam ->
Not Fade Away Reprise

ENC 2: 

Born To Run %%

@ - Bob Dylan Cover, First Time Played by Almost Dead 
# - Not played by Almost Dead since The Belly Up, Aspen, CO, 2016-07-02, a gap of 32 shows
$ - With a “Duo Jam”
% - Bob Weir cover, from “Blue Mountain”, First Time Played by Almost Dead 
^ - With short China Cat & Cold Rain & Snow Jams (Band)
& - Kind of a Drums -> Space Hybrid, with Joe, Adam Morford, Billy Martin & John Medeski, playing crazy percussion instruments created & built by Adam Morford on a riser behind Joe’s kit. Eventually Marco, Tommy, Dave & Scott joined in & the segment evolved into Space. First Time Played by Almost Dead.
&& - Entire second set from Space on & encore with Stuart Bogie on Sax, flute & clarinet.
* - With John Medeski on percussion & then Hammond Organ and Billy Martin & Adam Morford on Percussion
+ - With John Medeski on Hammond Organ and Billy Martin & Adam Morford on Percussion
@@ - With a tease of what I think was a Tears for Fears tune (TH)
## - First Time Played by Almost Dead
$$ - With Black Throated Wind teases (SM)

Download Entire Show (via archive.org)

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