Joe Russo's Almost Dead Revives the Long Lost Concert Experience at Jacobs Pavilion

click to enlarge Joe Russo's Almost Dead Revives the Long Lost Concert Experience at Jacobs Pavilion
Photos by Eric Sandy

The old feeling of wandering through a crowd, grooving to some blues riff in the riverside air, running into old friends and dancing to a major-key jam deep in improv territory came back in waves last night. It was a much-needed reunion. Joe Russo's Almost Dead played to a 3/4-full Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, reviving blissful emotions and memories rich with longing.

It was—let's just get right down to it—a great time. Mid-August in Cleveland. The great American music of the Dead. Tallboy seltzers for days. What more could you want?

As far as the show itself, everything seemed to fit into place. An early first-set Shakedown Street got us moving, hands in the air, with Tom Hamilton ripping off some terrific lead guitar work. By and large, it seemed to me, Hamilton and keys man Marco Benevento led the jams last night. When we got around to Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad, Benevento once again took charge with fine turns on the organ and piano. Within each song, Hamilton traded licks with guitarist Scott Metzger across the stage, often with a subtle nod or a knowing look. I tended to prefer Hamilton's tone, but again and again I noticed Metzger's brighter high-end solos surprising me as he tore up another one. I mean, this band is just incredible. (See the full setlist below.)

It was a pleasure seeing Benevento and Russo up there, with the latter playing the role of conductor all night (watching his drum sticks for improvisatory cues and full-band direction was pretty cool). I hadn't seen them together since the old Benevento/Russo Duo days—including the Nautica show with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon in 2006. Memories rich with longing.

The wheel spins ever onward, and characters from the past return to the light. It was a show full of internal messages like this, and, not to get too heady, but the weird serendipity of live shows is something that I was really missing this past year-and-change.

The music, if I'm being honest here, was almost secondary to the very fact that—hey!—we're all together at a show again! This was my first time seeing JRAD after a number of opportunities over the years, so I was obviously excited to see the way these guys gel onstage, but the whole thing indeed was far more than the sum of its parts last night. This was an experience, in the sense of the word as we used to say it.

In the second set, I thought the Black-Throated Wind lent the place an air of mystery and welcome darkness before segueing into a dynamic Uncle John's Band. In my chicken-scratch notes, I wrote, “atonal Marco-led weirdness” and “Hamilton great lead,” so make of that what you will. It was awesome in the moment, and it felt like the music never stopped. My toes are still tapping as I write this.

While we're here, it's worth mentioning the whole vaccine requirement business.

A flurry of news reports have cited dates when vaccine requirements will be instated at local venues. LiveNation venues will begin requiring the vaccine Oct. 4, and a cadre of local establishments will begin no later than Sept. 7. Until Oct. 4, one LiveNation rep pointed out to me, it's the band's choice. Joe Russo and Co. decided to mandate the vaccine, and so be it.

Naturally, I hadn't gotten the memo.

This was my first time approaching a box office with a vaccine checkpoint. I didn't have my card on me, of course. I gestured to my camera and insisted I was but a misinformed photographer who didn't have his card on him—just here to do the Lord's work! No dice. There wasn't a very strict protocol at the gate (people were sort of milling about, knocking back last-minute Miller Lites and fumbling for their own precious cards), but, true to the nature of the mandate, I was turned away.

I called my wife and asked her to send me a photo of my card, slotted away among papers on my desk at home, and that seemed to do the trick. The staffer glanced at my phone, took note of the vague appearance of an official vaccination record card, and waved me through. It took maybe two seconds—to ease the concerns that vaccine requirements are going to slow shit down at venues across the country this fall.

I walked in confidently: double vaxx’d (Moderna, natch) with a negative COVID-19 test from as recent as Aug. 13 to boot. This is the sort of information you must share with readers now, particularly when you’re reviewing a large, heady gathering like this. We tend to play fast and loose in the alt-weekly world, but one thing we don’t trifle with is public health. Point is, I felt at home here. I felt secure being a part of all this. I hit a joint that someone passed me and slipped into the crowd.

Good Morning, Little School Girl
Foolish Heart
Shakedown Street
Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad
Mission in the Rain

Black-Throated Wind
Uncle John's Band
Cumberland Blues
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Viola Lee Blues
Brown-Eyed Women

Not Fade Away