Joe Russo Talks Furthur, The Grateful Dead, and “Almost Dead”

JoeRussosAlmostDeadPhoto by Mark Dershowitz

Last week Listen Up Denver! had the pleasure of talking with Furthur drummer Joe Russo about his upcoming shows with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead [JRAD] as well as some of his other recent and upcoming projects and collaborations.  In part one of this two part piece we touch on how JRAD started as a fresh take on the classic Grateful Dead song catalog, the transformative experience Russo has gone through since immersing himself into the world of The Grateful Dead, and his place in the lone line of potential torchbearers of that music.  Catch the Colorado debut of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at The Boulder Theater on Friday night and The Ogden on Saturday!  Tickets are still available for both shows.

Listen Up Denver!: I think most anyone reading this is familiar with your work in Futhur so can you talk about Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.   How did this project get started?

Joe Russo: I had spent about four years with Furthur and I guess it was two years ago when we played this party in Brooklyn called The Freaks Ball [the first JRAD gig].  This group from an old listserv in NYC run by a bunch of New York music fans would have a party every year called The Freaks Ball and they certainly helped put The Benevento Russo Duo on the map, and a lot of other projects that we’ve all worked with.  They helped get our Zeppelin thing out there [Bustle in Your Hedgerow] and myself, Scott Metzger, and all of the other members of JRAD had been involved with playing these parties every year for the last 10 or 12 years. We’d always try to bring something fun and give back to celebrate these people who helped us get our start in New York and have done so much for our careers over the years.

So, at at that point, we had pretty much exhausted all the options on what we could do.  We had done The Duo, Bustle in Your Hedgerow, RANA, and a bunch of other things over the years, so I was talking with our friend Pete Costello who is the production manager at Brooklyn Bowl and he was jokingly like ‘we could always do a Dead thing.” [laughs]  We dismissed it at the time but, in the end, after exploring a bunch of different options, we ended up rolling with it.  We said “ah screw it, it will just be this weird little party, nobody will know about it.  We’ll do it once and it will be a blast.”

By this point I’d fallen deeply in love with The Grateful Dead songbook.  Before Furthur I’d never really listened to the Dead but, once I started listening, it has changed my world.  I was like “aww shit, this is going to be awesome, we’ll do this gig, nobody will end up knowing about it.”  Things ended up being really well received and getting some hype so we spoke to Pete Shapiro about doing a show at the Brooklyn Bowl and he was like “Screw that, we’re doing it at the Capitol Theater.” [Laughs] We were like “ooohh kkaaay we’ll do our second show ever at the Capitol Theater with a band thats not really a band covering the music of a band I am in. [laughs]  It was just kind of funny but once again we had a really great time and all the reviews were really positive.

At that point we started to get all these offers coming in for festivals and things, and this was in like the next 48 hrs, with people saying “we wanna book your dead thing” and I’m saying “This isn’t a thing! [laughs]  We’re not really a band.  It was a joke!”  So we all ended up talking and were like “well, if people are enjoying what we are doing with this songbook and we’re having fun playing together, maaaybe we can play a few more shows.”  Since then we’ve done The Gathering of The Vibes, Chicago, a few other gigs and have two nights coming up in Colorado at The Boulder Theater and The Ogden. It was kind of a no brainer to just say “screw it.  This will be a band.”  It went from a complete, tongue in cheek joke, to this thing where we are rehearsing and everything and it has been really, really fun.  Its been really great digging into these tunes with my buddies in a different way than I had been doing with Furthur.  It’s been very gratifying.  We’ll keep doing this as long as we keep having fun and the fans keep enjoying it.

LUD!: From what I’ve listened to of JRAD it seems you guys have brought an interesting perspective to this catalog of songs that has been tackled by so many other musicians over the years.  What do you think you guys bring to the Grateful Dead songbook that maybe we haven’t heard before?

JR: Honestly, I think its a complete conglomeration of five musical influences; you know five different guys with different influences, none of which were really The Grateful Dead.  All five of us have been playing together since we were kids and we learned how to improvise together so we take what we’d do on any song at any gig and apply it to The Grateful Dead songbook.  Our style of listening to each other and reacting is the same whether it’s on a Dead Tune, a Zeppelin tune, or any of our own music.  We are going to take these incredible songs and play them completely in the moment and not try to sound like The Grateful Dead.  I think that the thing that’s fun about us, there are a lot of Grateful Dead cover bands out there that are trying to sound like the Dead.  I feel like that’s kind of an unfair thing because I don’t know how I would be able to improvise if I were trying to improvise like someone else.  Improv, as far as i am concerned, is how one person’s reaction in a moment is shared by others in that same moment.  We just do our thing, we aren’t trying to sound like the Dead.  We are just borrowing their songs and having fun.  I think that gives us a lot of freedom.  We aren’t trying to replicate anything and actually I feel like those really good Grateful Dead cover bands have a harder job than we do.  Those guys work their asses off and we certainly respect the hell out of it.  We’re just a couple of dudes hopping up on stage, borrowing some amazing songs, and having fun with them.  That’s what we are about and how we want to bring some respect to these songs.

LUD!: I think that’s what people are excited about with this project.

JR: Yeah, thats how we have fun with it.  We don’t have the pressure of trying to sound like one of the greatest American rock bands of all time [laughs].  That’s a tall order!!! [Laughs].  We are going to try and do our thing and it seems like people are enjoying it.  If we are having fun and people are enjoying it, then everybody wins.

LUD!: Exactly.  What do you think it is about the music of the Dead that means so much to people even 20 years since their last show?  Even to those who never saw The Grateful Dead perform live?

JR: Incidentally, I am one of those people.  It’s just a perfect storm.  Their inception around a huge social movement that was going on had an incredible impact.  That said, the great lineup and of course the amazing, amazing songs didn’t hurt.  No other band played like the Dead were playing.  They had taken these influences of Country and R&B, and blended it with Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll and all this other stuff and really put it together in a way that nobody else had thought of.

You know I’ve said before that as a kid I wasn’t really into the Dead and was almost anti-Dead because I didn’t know what the hell it was.  I was a Metal head and I’d hear some dainty song and I was like “I don’t like the Dead.”  But if I had heard “Terrapin” or “King Solomon’s Marbles” or some of those chaotic, almost prog, songs I am sure it would have appealed to me at 15.  Now, having the luxury of hearing this whole catalog, it’s just got such a wide net.  The lyricism is incredible, the song structures are all over the place.

You know we’ve been doing rehearsals and Scott [Metzger] has been finding himself in the de facto Bob [Weir] role and it’s just funny when he’s learning these Bob tunes with all these twists and turn and weird arrangements.  He’s like “what the hell is this?!?!” but he loves it.  It’s just such a treat seeing these guys fall in love with these tunes that they wouldn’t be geared to if not for this experience.  I went through the same thing with Furthur where I was like “Oh My God I LOVE these tunes!!” and now I get to share that with some of these guys.

You know you asked about what it is that keeps people so into this music?  I think that there really is something there for everybody once they give it a chance.  I mean they really are, at least I think, one of, if not THE greatest American Rock bands of all time.  Something with that much power and spirit behind it is not just going to go away.  I’ve talked to Phil [Lesh] about the legacy of the Dead living on, him playing with his kids and eventually his kids playing with their kids and it will go on forever.  There will always be a bloodline going through the music of The Grateful Dead and it will probably go on forever.

LUD!: What do you think about yourself, someone who doesn’t have a ton of history with the music, potentially being one of those torchbearers who continues that bloodline after Phil, Bobby, and the rest of those guys are done performing?

JR: I don’t really think of myself in that way.  I’m just a guy who got lucky to play with Bob and Phil.  I certainly hold no title for myself or anything.  I’m just happy that through my experience with those guys that maybe people will check out what we do with the same songbook.  That’s as grand as I see it you know? [laughs]  I’m the luckiest guy in the world.  I got a life changing gig and got exposed to a songbook that I truly hold dear now.  I had my whole world basically turned over by playing the music of this band that I thought wasn’t so great as a kid.  [laughs]  There is a lot of humility involved so I would certainly be the last one to say anything about me bearing any sort of torch but I am certainly excited to get to play this music and share the things I’ve learned with Bobby and Phil as my teachers.

LUD!: Well it sounds like your experience with Furthur was a transformative one.  At least in how you viewed the music of The Grateful Dead.  What were some of the misconceptions you had about the music and what have you taken away from playing with those guys for the last few years.

JR: I think my general misconception was that it was this lazy, kind of hippy, hug fest.  That it was all cuddly and rainbows and stuff…[laughs]   Probably until a year before I got the call for Furthur I kind of thought that way.  It turns out I was very wrong.  There is a darkness and an intense energy to a lot of this music.  Then I started learning about the guys in the band and their individual personalities.  I mean I read Phil’s book and this guy is throwing people down stairs and I’m like “What the fuck?”  I was completely enamoured.  It was fascinating.

Then of course I went back and listened to all the music.  I’d never had a chance to really sit and just listen to the Dead without having to study it to get familiar with the songs and play them live.  When I finally I got to sit down with this incredible music I found it to be really dark and experimental stuff.  It’s really free and I was just so completely wrong about all of it:  What the scene was, the music, all of it.  It’s been really cool and incredibly transformative for me.

It’s just so humbling when you think you know something and it turns out you don’t know shit. [laughs]  You can either fight it or just be like “Wow, I sucked. [laughs]  I was totally wrong and have been depriving myself from something I now hold so dear to me.  What else have I done this with?”  It’s really changed my attitude on a lot of stuff because Furthur was the last place in the world I would have ever, ever, EVER, thought I’d be and to have it have such an impact really shook my world up a little bit.  I’m just thankful that it’s opened my eyes musically.


Friday, October 10th
The Boulder Theater

Saturday, October 11th
The Ogden Theatre


Who Is Gary Mellini

Gary is a lifelong music fan raised in Chicago. He is the "G" of J2G Live, a Denver based music production company that brings you "Dance Party Time Machine," "Revenge of the 90's" among other great events.