Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) Minus Russo Peak at Slam With Help From Kimock/Roque in Burlington, VT (SHOW REVIEW/PHOTOS)

Rather than merely soldier on without their leader and namesake (taking the night off as his wife recently gave birth), Joe Russo’s Almost Dead gave an absolutely stellar performance to close out the Lake Champlain Maritime Festival on July 28th. Neither their energy nor their invention flagged over the course of two sets as the modified sextet, incorporating two drummers in the persons of Evan Roque and John Morgan Kimock, compensated for a delayed start due to inclement weather and wholly made the event worth waiting for.

Led by Scott Metzger’s uncanny vocal read of “Feel Like A Stranger,” the reconfigured JRAD lost no time setting an adventurous but disciplined tone for the evening. The guitarist’s interplay with his fretboard counterpart Tom Hamilton was probing and assertive, while keyboardist Marco Benevento quickly found his level, offering understated electric piano highlighting the softer intervals of the early improv. Meanwhile, Roque and Kimock missed only the slightest of beats as they settled in a dual groove, swinging and slamming their way into unison and complementary off-beats.

The appearance of “Scarlet Begonias” in this first set introduced two fundamental elements of the performance. These musicians clearly love such material and are willing, eager and capable of doing it justice with lively interpretations by which they put their own stamp on the songs: even an arguably lesser tune such as “Samson and Delilah” spoke for and through them. And other sources such as “Brown-Eyed Women,” are as worthy of hearing as compositions in and of themselves (in particular for Robert Hunter’s erudite vivid lyrics) as vehicles for in-the-moment explorations that comprised most of this performance.

Much like the somewhat leisurely encore, “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” the appearance of “Truckin’” late in the second set might’ve seemed a predictable choice. But as the latter tune emerged from a cacophonous passage sounding like nothing so much as “Drums”/”Space” combined, its fast shuffle, along with its lyric narrative, effectively set up the muted delivery of “Brokedown Palace;” it was a tribute to the band’s command of dynamics, as well as their otherwise rowdy audience’s attention-span, that the volume dropped down to a whisper around the grounds of Waterfront Park as well as on the stage. And this all took place after it sounded like “Not Fade Away” was about to emerge from a jam on “China Cat Sunflower,” started to crystallize as “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” before the band decided to pursue “Aiko Aiko.” Clearly, this JRAD was operating with a surfeit of ideas.

Not to mention a surplus of savvy and empathetic musicianship. Ween’s Dave Dreiwitz proved something of an unsung hero this night as, like many of the greatest of those wielding his instrument, he was more often felt rather than heard. But the walking bass line he played over, under and around the singalong on ‘..what a long strange trip it’s been..’ suggested he was the backbone of the band. His partners in the rhythm section, meanwhile,were a study in contrasts, visually and otherwise: pressed into teamwork duty while the leader of the band fulfilled his fatherly responsibilities in the wake of the birth of his second daughter, Roque earnestly and assiduously moved around his kit with studied intensity as Kimock layered on accents with casual surety, that is when he wasn’t hammering down with his usual indomitable authority.

In the end, Joe Russo has two reasons to be proud this July of 2019. He is again a proud parent and saw the band that bears his name carry on its honorable reputation in the wake of heavy downpours that no more dampened its spirits than that of a crowd nearly filling this al fresco venue on the water’s shore. The hastily-configured JRAD played with fierce loyalty and devotion to this music mirroring that of the gathering of tribes before them, so the reciprocal combination of enthusiasm and patience turned everyone into joyful kindred spirits the likes of which the good ol’ Grateful Dead would certainly empathize.

Photos by Ross Mickel

Joe Russo's Almost Dead Setlist Lake Champlain Maritime Festival 2019 2019

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