Joe Russo's Almost Dead 6.1.24

Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre
Morrison, CO

Words by J. Picard
Photos by Andrew Wyatt

It was 6:30 AM and I found myself above one of the world's greatest music venues, staring down, reflecting on the music of the Grateful Dead and what it meant to so many. While my wife was inside participating in Yoga on the Rocks, I hiked down from one of the near by lookouts with a gentleman from Nepal whom I struck up a conversation with. Across the Upper North lot at one of the side entrances to the venue I sidled up to Sam and John, a couple of middle-aged music fans who were holding space. They were pre-gaming more than twelve hours before the start of the evening's Joe Russo's Almost Dead show. There was an energy in the air that was palpable as people filed out from their morning workout and the venue was metaphorically transferred to the Dead Heads for the day. And what a day it would be, as JRAD would be joined by the legendary musician and Grateful Dead collaborator, Branford Marsalis!

We returned to Red Rocks around 3:00 PM, passed the box office, which had yet to open, and parked under a shady tree at the trailhead for the Trading Post, precisely in the middle of where we needed to be. My wife Carly and I were joined by photographer Andrew Wyatt, who would be shooting the show for MusicMarauders, as well as his wife Greta! What followed was a parking lot potluck, which at one point almost played host to the passing tour buses. Saxophonist, Pete Wall, enticed by the prospect of seeing Branford Marsalis, arrived with his daughter for her first Red Rocks show! Andrew and I picked up our media credential and photo pass at the box office, where I once again ran into Sam from earlier that morning. Back at the car, we grabbed some drinks for the road and headed up the trail towards the Trading Post and venue. The trail had really been built up and included steps, paved pathways and a bridge, by which we saw a deer grazing.

At the shuttle we were hassled about not having the proper credentials, though we had been instructed to take the shuttle. No bother, we separated from Andrew and Greta and made haste to the entrance where my wife Carly and I met fourteen years prior. It's a steep but beautiful climb that enters the venue from the bottom by the stage. We located Greta at row 11, grabbed some Topo Chico's and I made my way to the other side of the venue, to the entrance of the photo pit and backstage entrance for an interview with Andrew for Galaxy Tenants about photographing Red Rocks. The venue quickly filled to the brim and right before the show began, I passed back through the photo pit and climbed back up to 11 for the start of the show.

The five-piece took the stage with bright smiles and a sense of readiness as drummer Joe Russo's stretched, the band tuned a bit and slowly eased into "Help on the Way," to the delight of the near capacity crowd. The authenticity of the build up and the sweetness of the instrumentation was reminiscent of some serious 1972 - 1974 Grateful Dead vibes. Guitarist, Tom Hamilton, stepped up with a red hot solo that while paying tribute to the stylistic approach of Jerry Garcia, sounded all its own. True to form, they segued into "Slipknot!," with some heavy low end from bassist Dave Dreiwitz and wonderful fills and forward motion from Marco Benevento on the organ. The music took a fairly abrupt right turn as they segued into "Mama Tried," with guitarist ,Scott Metzger, leading a great early set sing along!

Joe welcomed the evening's special guest, legendary saxophonist, Branford Marsalis, to the stage. The depth of his career cannot be overstated and his playing on some very significant live Dead shows and recordings brought horns to the band in the early to mid 90s. They kicked off a ripping version of "Samson and Delilah," with Tom's heavy handed guitar and Scott nailing the Bob Weir sound and phrasing! Branford sat back for the first few verses, easing his way in then taking the reigns for a squeaky clean solo that prompted child-like smiles around on stage. Marco played a beautiful solo on the grand piano, before Tom shredded and the sing along continued! "If I had my way! If I had my way! If I had my way, I would tear this old building down!"

"West L.A. Fadeaway" featured some really cool interplay between Tom, Branford and Scott and opened wide for solos across the stage. It was interesting to watch how far Branford played from the microphone, at times getting lost in the mix. The jam really took off and I wanted more Branford in the mix! But honestly, what do I know? The lengthy jam returned to the recognizable as they transitioned from "West L.A." into "Ruben & Cherise," Branford went from tenor to soprano for a very fitting sound! Tom did a great job replicating the sound and essence of Jerry's vocals. The music opened up into an airy section that played out like a dream, with soft keys and subtle tones teasing endless possibility before achieving full lift off and transitioning into "Throwing Stones," with which the crowd was thrilled. Scott lead the charge, absolutely crushing the Bob Weir feel and the crowd yelling in unison, "Ashes, ashes, all fall down!" Once again they stripped the composition down to a bare minimum and built it back up to towering heights, with Joe holding the chaos together like glue. It was a fantastic close to a wonderful first set!

The lights came up and we introduced ourselves to our neighbors who were from Florida and Ecuador and it was their first time at Red Rocks! The gentleman and I chatted for a bit about the band and their individual projects and I encouraged them to make the climb to the top to see the city lights over the roof of the venue, which they obliged. We ran into some of our favorite folks, which is is often the case at Red Rocks! We caught up on life, shared some laughs and some hugs before the lights came down and the band returned to the stage.

Marco leaned heavy on the Rhodes and a disjointed sort of space over-took the venue with sounds bouncing off of the rocks. "King Solomon's Marbles" kicked off set two. It was heavy and menacing and Branford dove right in with Marco for what was a strong vehicle to start the second set. "Bird Song" followed from what felt like an orbit, taking shape on its planetary return with Tom's vocals. Over the span of seventeen plus minutes the band executed a sweet and expansive rendition of the classic that transitioned into "Let It Grow." The jams during this section of the show had a sort of "Drums" > "Space" vibe in its looseness and relative to its placement in the set. "Let it Grow" came in at over eighteen minutes, for a solid thirty five minutes between the two songs.

"Wharf Rat" featured Tom up front, in another true to form feeling classic. Though a slower song than I would typically prefer at that point in the set, I appreciated it's authenticity and execution. As well, the jam featured some wonderful playing from Tom; His fingers climbed the neck of the guitar and shredded as he went, triggering Branford to fully engage and smile. The music built and the band transitioned into "Cassidy." The distinct melody rang out through the air and I smiled as I reflected on the character, partly attributed to influencing the song, Neal Cassidy. The whole thing eluded to a complete understanding of the cosmic formula, style and energy of America's band. The jam featured a locked in Dave and Joe, driving the train and leaving ample room for Tom, Scott and Branford to shine; brightly, I might add, as they transitioned into "Playing in the Band."

We decided to wander as the second set came to a close, saying goodbye to Andrew, Greta and our neighbors. In the planter boxes near the grandly lit stairs, hippies danced and moved with wide-eyes and Cheshire Cat like smiles. The music stopped only briefly, as the band returned and encored with "Morning Dew." It started heavier than expected before slowing to a crawl. Joe Russo snapped his fingers and the audience clapped on cue, adding to the minimalist layers of Marco's keys and Tom's airy voice. The music soared over the rocks diminishing into nothingness as we made our way to the exit, satisfied with the evening as a whole. "I guess it doesn't matter, anyway..."

On our first post Red Rocks return trip since moving to Evergreen, I reflected on JRAD as we climbed up towards our treehouse. There is a certain authenticity with the music of the Grateful Dead that can't be fabricated. Either the spirit of their music flows through you or it doesn't. Either you are or you are not a conduit for Dead music. Joe Russo's Almost Dead captures the energy of early 1970s Dead, the youthful approach to the music that is reminiscent of early 60s and the foresight and experience of the band in the early 90s. JRAD has it all. It's everything you would want from a band paying homage to this legendary music in 2024. As I said to the guy next to me, "I have been seeing all of these guys individually for decades and nothing about their careers to date would have lead me to believe that they would unite in a Grateful Dead cover/tribute band, yet here we are at an absolutely packed Red Rocks..."

Set One: Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Mama Tried, Samson and Delilah*, West L.A. Fadeaway* > Rubin and Cherise* > Throwing Stones*

Set Two: King Solomon's Marbles*, Bird Song* > Let It Grow*, Wharf Rat* > Cassidy* > Playing in the Band*

Encore: Morning Dew*


*with Branford Marsalis


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