Live Review: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Keeps Innovating At Fiery HeadCount Benefit

Les Skolnik
– Making Democracy RAD Again
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead performs at a HeadCount benefit show at Brooklyn Bowl on Nov. 25, 2019.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead
Brooklyn Bowl
New York, N.Y.
November 25, 2019

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead might’ve been the name on the marquee of Brooklyn Bowl’s flagship Williamsburg location Monday night, but the true headliner was democracy.

The concert, a “Make Democracy Rad Again!” benefit staged by voter registration non-profit HeadCount, foregrounded civic engagement, from information tables at the entrance to the night’s setlist, which was comprised of fan-voted favorites and affirmed that democracy isn’t limited to politics.

HeadCount may have more outspoken advocates, or more famous ones – Ariana Grande shared a picture with Bernie Sanders last week, along with the news that she’d registered more than 20,000 voters on tour in partnership with HeadCount – but JRAD has as deep a connection to the organization as any. As HeadCount co-founder Andy Bernstein reminded the audience at the night’s outset, JRAD drummer and namesake Joe Russo and keyboardist Marco Benevento joined Phish’s Mike Gordon for the organization’s first benefit, in 2004, and all the band’s members have played affiliated events.

But, when Brooklyn Bowl co-founder Peter Shapiro, who became the chairman of HeadCount’s board in July, took the stage before JRAD’s sublime encore of “Jack Straw,” he explained the deeper reason for booking JRAD as the talent at the “first of what we hope will be more” joint benefits between the Bowl and HeadCount.

Courtesy of HeadCount
– Guys of the Bowl
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s Marco Benevento, Tom Hamilton, Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz and Scott Metzger (from left) perform at Brooklyn Bowl on Nov. 25, 2019.

“The way they approach these songs and this music, it’s something we all know, but they do it new,” Shapiro said. “They make it faster, they make it harder, they rock it, and we felt, at Headcount and at the Bowl, that that’s a pretty fitting way to approach life right now, all of us. All we do is we ask you to treat tomorrow and the next day in some way – and you’ll know how you do it – like these guys treat it tonight.”

Shapiro was right. If everyone treated their civic duty like JRAD treated their nearly-four-hour two-set performance Monday, the American electorate would be positively supercharged. The fearsomely talented quintet, which is helmed by Russo, and rounded out by Tom Hamilton, Dave Dreiwitz, Scott Metzger and Benevento – jammed with innovative gusto, reinvigorating Dead classics like “St. Stephen” and “Althea.” That’s how they’ve done it since they played their first show, at Brooklyn Bowl, in January 2013.

Part of the benefit’s draw, of course, was that JRAD has outgrown the 900-capacity Brooklyn Bowl. In January, the band played three sold-out nights at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., grossing $275,188 and moving 6,000 tickets, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. After Monday’s show, HeadCount announced the benefit had raised $150,000.

The intimate setting closed the gap between performer and audience, elevating the already sizzling show. And while “fan-voted” might’ve spooked seasoned Heads, JRAD’s setlist electorate was surprisingly savvy. The 20 selections from the 160-song ballot omitted several staples – “Morning Dew” and “The Other One” both missed the cut by less than 15 votes, according to HeadCount – while relative rarities, like primal freakout “The Eleven,” retired by the Dead in 1970, and Jerry Garcia Band staple “Reuben and Cherise,” only performed four times by the Dead, easily landed spots.

Russo sequenced the sets himself – popular sovereignty only extends so far, it turns out – and generally made the unusual grouping of material work. JRAD didn’t go out of its way to make every transition seamless – the cut from the psych-blues of “Viola Lee Blues” into the sleek rock of “Franklin’s Tower” was particularly abrupt –  but when they did, it was magical. An effervescent “Scarlet Begonias” didn’t transition so much as melt into “Dark Star,” calling to mind Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s famed quote that “‘Dark Star is always playing somewhere. All we do is tap into it.”

The setlist selection process, however, did explain the show’s only shortcoming. Like Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir did, Hamilton and Metzger divvy up vocal duties, with Hamilton generally grabbing the former’s songs and Metzger taking the latter’s. But Garcia’s songbook dominated the poll, meaning Metzger only sang lead on one song: second set closer “Throwing Stones.”

Courtesy of HeadCount
– Throwing Stones
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and HeadCount raised $150,000 at Monday’s Brooklyn Bowl benefit concert.

The Weir tune narrowly edged “Fire On The Mountain” for the final setlist slot, but provided the show’s thematic centerpiece. With John Perry Barlow lyrics about greedy elites, “Throwing Stones” is as close to political as the Dead got, and JRAD played it with an urgency that proved it’s as relevant now as it was when the Dead debuted it in 1982. Mid-song, JRAD even dipped into a swaggering instrumental rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2,” further ratcheting up the anti-establishment intensity.

JRAD commonly nods to the non-Dead world – at their January 2019 Cap run alone, they covered Motörhead, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen – and the Floyd homage wasn’t the only time they successfully did so on Monday. In addition to the 18 Dead songs fans selected, they also called on JRAD to trot out two of their other popular covers: Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and The Allman Brothers Band’s “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” the latter of which they hadn’t played since 2017.

Here, too, the setlist electorate was savvy. Sequenced immediately after “Eyes of the World,” “Elizabeth Reed” was the second half of a riveting half-hour combo that closed the first set and was the night’s highlight. Each of JRAD’s members shined, from Benevento, whose gleaming keyboards channelled – but didn’t imitate – the Dead’s Keith Godchaux and Gregg Allman, to Dreiwitz, whose punchy bass work solidified the potentially fraught transition between the two tunes. Russo led the enterprise with his sturdy drumming, and the ensemble gave Metzger a launching pad for dizzying six-string pyrotechnics. With flashes of rock, blues, jazz, prog and psychedelia, the pairing showcased everything JRAD does well – which is to say, a lot.

The instrumental “Elizabeth Reed” conjured memories of the Dead’s extensive relationship with the Allmans, dating back to late-night sessions at New York’s Fillmore East and the 1973 Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. And, given the night’s theme, it also called to mind the Allmans’ own political activism: In 1975, the band played a benefit for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.

Decades later, organizations like HeadCount and artists from JRAD to Ariana Grande continue to leverage the power of song to impact government and society. With shows like Monday’s, it’s obvious why: democracy can yield some tremendous music.

Set I:
The Eleven
Viola Lee Blues
Franklin’s Tower
Atlantic City
Reuben and Cherise
Eyes of the World
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

Set II:
St. Stephen
Scarlet Begonias
Dark Star
Terrapin Station Suite
Shakedown Street
Throwing Stones

Jack Straw