After 10 years, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead still exploring


Drummer Joe Russo likes to play jazz. Weird, wonderful, experimental jazz. But Russo also likes to play straight-ahead rock, psychedelic rock, Americana, and more.

With his eclectic interests, just about the only band that scratches every music itch is the Grateful Dead. But it’s still surprising that Joe Russo’s Almost Dead tribute project has lasted 10 years.

“It’s kind of insane that this is still a thing,” Russo told the Herald with a laugh.

Russo started the band on a lark, a one-night-only event, but fans wanted more, and more, and more. Over a decade, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead has grown from club dates to 5,000-seat venues – JRAD performs at Leader Bank Pavilion on, Aug. 12.

As a kid in the ’80s, Russo dug the heavy and hard stuff: Zeppelin, Sabbath, Iron Maiden, KISS, and Rush. Later, he got serious about jazz and improvisational music in the 2000s with the Benevento/Russo Duo (keyboardist Marco Benevento plays in JRAD along with guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger and bassist Dave Dreiwitz). Russo finally got to know the Dead’s music when Bob Weir and Phil Lesh hired him in 2008 to play in Furthur – not because he knew the catalog, but because he’s an awesome drummer.

Since then, he’s found a freedom in that catalog.

“The liberties we are allowed to, and encouraged to, take with the song book is in the band’s DNA,” Russo said. “The stuff the Grateful Dead did destroying any kind of formulaic approach to their music is the open door that allows us to do what we do. The beautiful thing that’s built into (the Dead’s music) is an acceptance of making it different every time.”

“The stuff that Marco and I used to do sounded nothing like the Grateful Dead,” he added. “But they are both part of a shared belief system in improvisation and not being afraid to go off script. Honestly, this band has become such a playground for us to explore, maybe more than any other project I have been in, which is funny because, on paper, it’s a Grateful Dead cover band.”

What makes JRAD so unique is that nobody in the group wants to do this full time but everybody adores doing it part time. The 40-ish shows a year the band does gives everyone room to do a lot of other stuff. Over the past few years, Russo has recorded and/or toured with indie rock stalwarts Craig Finn, Cass McCombs and the Fruit Bats. Next up is new project Selcouth Quartet.

“We made a record in Iceland in January, that was something, and I’m so thrilled about it,” Russo said of Selcouth’s October-due debut album. “I’m kind of going back to my roots of instrumental jazz. We went into the studio not knowing what it would be and walked out five days later with an album.”

Not knowing what’s going to happen seems to be a running theme with Russo’s career, and, not coincidentally, the music of the Dead.

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