Nearly 50 years after the Grateful Dead played Ken Kesey’s infamous acid tests, the band’s following is as strong as ever. This summer, the surviving members of the original band will play three shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field before saying farewell to one another forever. The band’s fans set records on Ticketmaster and Stubhub last weekend, with over 180,000 tickets sold in less than an hour and resale prices topping out around $10,000.
The members of the band have been touring in various formations since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, but none of these bands has managed to consistently channel the captivating intensity of the early Grateful Dead. The spark that ignited the band so long ago has been noticeably absent for awhile now, possibly due to the aging band members or the fact that fans will show up even for mediocre performances.
Thankfully there’s a new generation of incredibly talented musicians who are inheriting the Grateful Dead canon and pushing it to places it has rarely been. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead began as a one-off tribute in 2013 that injected some much-needed life into the Dead catalog. Tapes of that show quickly made their way around the online Deadhead community as demand grew for the band to play more shows and take the project on the road. After two years with only a handful of performances, the band is hitting the road hard this year and playing all across the country.
After selling out a show at the Joy Theater, the band tacked on another night (tickets are available here) for those who missed out. But is all of the hype well-founded? Is this band worthy of two nights on one of the biggest stages in town? During Jazz Fest?!
You bet. Here are five reasons why JRAD is the real deal (and may even save you from shelling out $5,000 to see the original Dead in Chicago this summer):
1. Joe Russo’s driving the train
Drummer Joe Russo has a lot on his shoulders as the leader of this group. Not only does he have to pull off complex time signatures on songs that typically feature two drummers, he has been entrusted with some of the most cherished songs in American popular music. Russo pulls it off without a hitch by adding a propulsive energy that left the Dead sometime back in the late 70s. It also doesn’t hurt that Russo learned the ropes from original Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir over the past five years as the drummer in their band Furthur.
2. Mastery of the entire Dead catalog
What makes JRAD so musically exciting likely stems from the fact that none of the musicians involved have an extensive background playing the Dead’s music. The band includes jazz-trained virtuosos and indie rock singer-songwriters who tackle the material with confidence and enthusiasm. Not only do they ace some of the more complex compositions of the Dead catalog, they can also nail classic tunes from other artists, like Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and The Band’s “Ophelia.” Check out the video below for a glimpse into their technical skills as they tackle the challenging “Help on the Way/Slipknot!” before transitioning seamlessly into a funky “Shakedown Street:”
3. The perfect amount of jamming
Despite the band’s reputation as forefathers of the jamband scene, the Dead only veered off into extended improvisational interludes a few times a night. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead adds a bit more improvisation, but every exploratory jam comes back to earth and blasts into a new song at just the right moment. Purposeful, dynamic jams are this band’s strongest asset and they nail every solo and transition with reckless abandon.
4. The Joy Theater
In the past year, The Joy Theater has become one of the best large-scale venues in the city. The roomy general admission floor and swanky upper balcony offer the best of both worlds while delivering crystal-clear sound throughout. The Joy hosts some of the best nighttime shows this Jazz Fest, including The Meter Men with Page McConnell, The Word, and two late night sets by British funksters The New Mastersounds. Extra points for a bar that offers some seriously tasty cocktails and craft beers.
5. Marco Benevento
Although the crazy-talented piano player takes a back seat with this group, his utterly unique style is definitely felt as he channels the ghosts of Grateful Dead kesysmen of past. Benevento sets up shop in town every Jazz Fest and delivers some of the most exciting shows of the week, from James Booker tributes with James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich to late night parties at the Maple Leaf that break in to full-on disco mode. His appearance last year during Anders Osborne’s Acura Stage set showed Benevento is just as valuable playing a supporting role as leading the band.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead plays The Joy Theater during the second weekend of Jazz Fest (May 1 and 2). Tickets for the May 1 show are still available here.