Joe Russo was totally stressed when he walked off an Oakland, Calif., stage at set break during the 2009 debut of Furthur, a group built around the former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Unversed in the Dead’s massive repertoire only weeks earlier, Mr. Russo, a Brooklyn drummer, was relying heavily on a laptop for assistance in front of an audience for whom the material was uncut cultural DNA. Spotting Mr. Weir backstage, he apologized for his high anxiety and requested advice. His new boss obliged: “Maybe take some mushrooms?”
While he didn’t follow the prescription, “All the tension fell out of my body and I knew nobody would die if I screwed up,” Mr. Russo recalled recently. “It was a very free place.”
And things have only gotten freer since. Sitting in the sunny backyard of the Park Slope apartment he shares with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, the amiable shaggy dog of a musician reflected upon Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, the unexpectedly successful powerhouse of a Grateful Dead tribute band he leads. (The group performs Thursday in Prospect Park as part of BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.)
JRAD, as the quintet is more casually known, is a vehicle for Mr. Russo and four musical friends of at least 20 years — the keyboardist Marco Benevento, the bassist Dave Dreiwitz, and the guitarists (and main vocalists) Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger — to improvise extravagantly around the Dead’s emotionally sublime and often quirky songwriting. They eschew the laid-back fidelity of both official offshoots like Dead & Company (which includes three of the so-called “core four” surviving band members) and other tribute acts like the Dark Star Orchestra. Think instead of the Dead on a gleeful amphetamine drip.
JRAD’s pumped-up take explores extremes of tempo and dynamics with muscular shredding, eerily quiet eddies and telepathic turn-on-a-dime switchbacks. Subtle and flagrant allusions to non-Dead songs pepper their shows. They play Bob Dylan songs the Dead didn’t cover, and long-familiar Dead song pairings are either jettisoned or take unexpected twists — as when Father John Misty’s “I’m Writing a Novel,” rather than the tried-and-true “I Know You Rider,” followed “China Cat Sunflower.”
Most of the JRAD lineup did something similar in the band Bustle in Your Hedgerow, which deconstructed the Led Zeppelin canon instrumentally. As with Bustle, Mr. Russo said, “we’re handling a songbook that’s cherished by us and a lot of other people while not really caring how it had been done before.”
Mr. Russo, 41, was decidedly late to the Deadhead party. Raised in Franklin Lakes, N.J. — where many of the “Real Housewives of New Jersey” reside — the young metalhead quit his high school rock band (fronted by the future “American Idol” finalist Constantine Maroulis) rather than play a Dead tune or two. He relocated to Boulder, Colo., and toured the country from 1996 to 2000 with Fat Mama, which mixed the spirit of electric Miles Davis with late-90s D.J. culture.
Back in New York, he reunited with Mr. Benevento, a friend from middle school, and they eventually hit the road as the Duo, combining fierce extemporaneity with an eclectic approach to instrumental songwriting.
“Joe hated anything tie-dyed,” Mr. Benevento recalled. “And he hated that I wore Birkenstocks onstage. In Canada we were called a jam band in a review, and he wrote We are not a jam band on his arm, really big. That being said, we were jamming. But so were Coltrane and Elvin Jones.”
JRAD also emerged, one could speculate, from the collective imagination of the NYC-Freaks email list. Launched in 2000 by Aaron Stein, now a Long Island nanoscientist, the list connected the passionate music fans he regularly saw at clubs like Wetlands Preserve, the jam scene’s CBGB and the Knitting Factory. (“I just got tired of going to shows alone,” Mr. Stein explained.) The list currently boasts nearly 700 opinionated recipients who often generate hundreds of posts in a day. Having grown up on the Dead and Phish, they remain on the prowl for the next great thing in rock, jazz, folk, whatever.
The NYC-Freaks are “some of the most dedicated music fans I’ve ever witnessed, and I truly owe a lot of my career to them,” said Mr. Russo, whose invariably spirited appearances in countless contexts made him a Freaks favorite from the get-go.
The annual “Freaks Ball,” held for the past few years at Brooklyn Bowl, brings the flock together. In January 2013, Mr. Russo was supposed to play there in a new group fronted by Mickey Melchiondo a.k.a. Dean Ween, who then changed his mind. After some gentle arm-twisting, Mr. Russo agreed to call on his Bustle buddies for an evening of Dead tunes and JRAD was born. “I swear there was no intention at all to play more than one show,” Mr. Russo said. “This was a mother-of-invention moment.”
The audience for Grateful Dead music has been a constantly renewing resource, especially since “Touch of Grey” hit the Top 10 in 1987. JRAD likewise hits the sweet spot where both older and younger fans find rapturous common cause. “In a world where everything is changing, it’s reassuring to hear the music you grew up with,” said the Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro, who produced the Dead’s 50th anniversary reunion in 2015. “And when you add a new kind of kerosene to the fire — like Joe and the guys do — it goes to the next level and keeps people chasing it.”
JRAD has become a fun and lucrative side gig for all concerned. Mr. Russo is finishing up a solo album and also records with the singer-songwriters Cass McCombs and Craig Finn; Mr. Benevento spends most of his time recording and touring his own music; Mr. Metzger leads the instrumental trio Wolf!; Mr. Hamilton debuted his new project Ghost Light earlier this year; and Mr. Dreiwitz plays bass for Ween. “I don’t even know I’m in a Grateful Dead tribute band until we start singing the three-part harmonies of ‘Uncle John’s Band,’” said Mr. Benevento.
Mr. Russo is cautious about overexposing JRAD’s special blend of orthodoxy and disruption. While festival appearances and bookings at venues such as Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater attest to JRAD’s ascending popularity, he runs his band like an econo indie outfit, eschewing fancy lights and managing it with Peter Costello, who also handles the band’s sound. For the time being, demand exceeds supply.
“Right now we’re living at about 40 shows a year,” Mr. Russo said. “I think we’d like to see that go down to about 30, and then do that for a really long time.”
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