In my mind at this point, Joe Russo is perhaps the best rock drummer I've ever heard. And I've had the privilege of seeing him a good number of times, sitting in with the Levon Helm Band, with Furthur, and with Phil and Friends. Lately he's formed his own band, Joe Russo's Almost Dead (a.k.a. JRAD) with long-time keyboard companion Marco Benevento, guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger, and bassist Dave Dreiwitz.
We saw them over New Year's on webcast, playing at the Capitol in Port Chester with Phil Lesh substituting for Dreiwitz, (billed as PhilRAD) and we were VERY impressed. At that point we knew they were coming to the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on February 6th, and after seeing the webcast there was no question but that we were going.
A huge development in the Dead world happened in the meantime too, the original group announcing a last series of concerts in July ... hopefully we can get tickets and there'll be more on that later. But Dead-dom is operating at fever pitch these days, and the Paradise show sold out, as had numerous other dates on the tour, such as Higher Ground (Burlington VT) the night before.
We've been inundated by snow in New England this winter, and I knew there was next to no chance of finding a parking space in Allston on a Friday night with the streets so clogged, so met Sarah and Dave at their building and parked there. We had dinner at Scollay Square and took the B branch of the Green Line from Park Street up to the Pleasant Street stop, along with hordes of people much closer to Dave's age than ours.
And to set the scene even more I need to say how brutal this winter has been so far and how fresh our memories were of going to Alston for a concert last winter and freezing to death. We were all wearing extra clothes but knew that we were likely in for a very cold experience, especially waiting for the T in the middle of the night. Winter was trying to scare us into staying inside and was almost succeeding!
But when we got off at Pleasant Street the hordes did not follow us, the weather seemed less threatening than it had out the windows of the train, and on the entrance to the club it said "open door," though nobody was there. So we did, and walked right in to a deserted Paradise ... deserted that is except for a few guys schlepping cases of beverages to stock the bars, and the band doing sound check!!!!! We walked right in to hear them kill The Wheel in that weird, empty room, and then practice a couple of other things, like a bit of Terrapin. An assistant passed out cheat sheets to them all for what was apparently an original, but they had their problems with it and didn't play it in the show.
Geez, were we allowed there? The beverage guys were smiling at us and the band was not bothered by us, so we hung out for a while wondering what was going on, but enjoying the moment. Then a big bouncer guy yelled at us (though he knew it was his fault for leaving the door unattended), and ushered us into the bar to hang out for official doors-open. The website had indicated the show started at 8 and the doors were open an hour before that, so we had shown up right around 7. Actually the website apparently meant that doors were at 8 ... the show started at 9. But that mixup was OK, especially since we'd had such a magical moment. We hung out at the bar and had a couple of beers.
We were some of the first people in at 8, and we moved immediately to find a good spot upstairs. They'd marked off a couple of areas as reserved near the soundboard, but we still got a very good spot up there and watched the crowd pour in. Soon the place was packed and rocking. People eventually showed up for the reserved corral in front of us, and some of them spent a lot of the evening talking and giggling, but some of them were obviously there for the music and were distressed by their silly companions. In all, the crowd was definitely dominated by serious Deadheads, as proved by conversations between sets and in the men's room. People were familiar with what they had played the night before, what opinions about they might/should play next, and everybody had their mind on Chicago in July. One guy in the men's room confessed that his mail order ticket request had just been turned down, and we were all chilled by that. Hope that doesn't happen to us!
So how was the show? It was awesome!! Russo was playing a larger kit than I've ever seen him play, with all the trimmings. He had eight drums including one small one that was almost a conga, four cymbals including a HUGE one that actually made kind of a tinny noise, a couple of electronic pads, a cowbell array, a tambourine stand, and of course his assortment of things to shake and then throw behind him, sticks, mallets, and brushes, and a overhead mike he could pull forward to sing into and then shove out of the way when he wanted to get down to some serious percussion. And he was leading the band of course, counting off the changes into the in-ear-monitor system, holding up his sticks and/or pointing to get the interludes when he wanted them, and grinning like a banshee!
Besides Russo, the player of the night was Benevento, who as I say had impressed us mightily in the New Year's shows. He only had two electric keyboards rather than the B3/Leslie setup we'd seen before, and he stood in front of it all evening. And he ripped off some of the funkiest and rocking-est and spaciest keyboard leads we'd heard. His technique was incredible too, sometimes crossing over hands for extended stretches, and often dancing between both keyboards and playing them at once.
And I don't mean to slight the strings players. Tom Hamilton was incredibly impressive himself and contributed hot, jazzy lead after lead. Metzger was the surprise of the night for me, as he took some fine leads himself, contributed rocking rhythm, and did some fine vocals. I hadn't seen Dreiwitz before (remember Phil?), but he was solid. Actually the vocals could have been better, but everyone contributed and they were not bad, interspersed with some good moments.
Here's the first set, with notes from their FB page:
China Cat Sunflower * (TH) >
I Know You Rider (All)
Easy Wind (SM) >
Viola Lee Blues # (All)
Althea $ (TH) >
Let It Grow (SM)
* With "Truckin'" Tease (SM)
# With "Cumberland Blues" & "China Cat Sunflower" Teases / Jams (TH)
$ With "All of My Love" (Led Zep) Teases (MB)
This was fantastic. Easy Wind had some incredible funk to it, especially Metzger's leads. Viola Lee was loud and long and had the whole building throbbing. The note is correct to our ears, they seemed to be trying to decide whether to play Cumberland or Viola Lee and settled on the latter. And then the Let It Grow was beyond epic ... this must have been a half hour itself, and had us all enthralled.
Lots of joy, long piss lines, crowd confusion in a packed house, and gushing at the set break, and then the second set:
Bird Song % (TH) >
Playing In The Band (SM) >
Eyes Of The World (TH) >
The Wheel (All) >
Uncle John's Band (All) >
Terrapin Station Suite (TH)
% With "China Cat Sunflower" & "Dark Star" Teases / Jams (TH)
Uncle John's Band & Not Fade Away were not on the set list as written.
Entire 2nd set was seamlessly played from beginning to end, with numerous extended segues.
Again, the notes were correct to our ear. They came out and jammed and seemed to be deciding whether they really wanted to play Dark Star or Bird Song. I thought they had just settled on Dark Star when the bass dropped into Bird Song and they were off. Great stuff!!! And then to go into a hot PITB dominated by Russo, then an Eyes where Benevento took us to another planet and beyond, then the song we'd heard them practicing when we showed up. We just loved it.
And then they found themselves in UJB when they apparently hadn't anticipated it and shrugged as a band and went at it! This was beautiful and heartfelt. We thought they were going to then finish The Wheel, which they never did [later note: they finished it in Portland the next night], though they did finish UJB eventually. But then they went into Terrapin and no prisoners were taken. This was where they wanted to be and they stayed in the Terrapin world for a long, long time while the room rocked and reeled and melted around them.
The band was billed as Joe's band, and it sure was. As mentioned over and over, I think he's one of the best musicians playing, and he proceeded to take Terrapin into a drum zone where we'd never been before. When we finally got to Tom and band singing the "spiral light of Venus" verse there was not a person in the house who wasn't riveted on Joe and following his every move. And then another change ... and then he grabbed the mike, beat the drums, and went into Terrapin Flyer!! As mentioned, the place was packed with knowledgeable Deadheads and this development was greeted with the enthusiasm it warranted. The three of us were in ecstasy I can tell you.
They left the stage after that and after a bit came back for the encore: Not Fade Away (see note above). They did the cheesy crowd-participation bit and to a purist might have seemed to have gotten a bit big for their britches to finish like they *were* the Dead or Furthur. But what the heck, this was another great vehicle to show off Joe's prowess on the drums, and a great way to send us into the night. Joe was a great bandleader to the end and thanked the band by name and the crowd for a brilliant night. They must be so excited to be selling out shows ... on to the State Theater in Portland tonight!!!
We gathered ourselves and took last bathroom visits before going out into the cold night. And we realized it was already after 1AM! We had to thread through a gauntlet of people doing nitrous out of huge, colorful balloons on the Comm Ave sidewalk; a couple of guys had tanks out there and were passing out balloons, probably for a price ... they must have been dentists trying to drum up business.
The T took forever to show up and we were pretty numb by then. The cars were packed with people a third my age, going somewhere. Half the jammed and slow train got off at Boylston and the rest at Park, and we managed to make it up the hill and over to the garage, and then drive home. Got to bed by a little after 2:30, which was extreme but what a fucking concert we'd just seen!