First, I want to state I am on Team Live Music. There is something about going to a show, especially one with a pit or general audience floor. Some people say it is where the magic happens. Maybe it is because you are down where the sound mixes, reverberates and amplifies due to the floor and the bodies. Or better yet, the entire audience is playing for the same organization, whether we are from San Diego, California, Portland, Maine, or somewhere in the middle of the sunflower fields of South Dakota. There is no rival, die-hard competition, or reason to hate the people who are around you. Not that it never happens. People fight for room, cut in front of, bumped each other, and spill beer on unsuspecting victims causing tempers to momentarily flair. Once, I was working a show when two hippie mafia families broke out into a fight. However, these are either brief or infrequent occurrences. People typically just want to hear the music they know so they can dance and feel free from life’s heavy burdens.
The pandemic took a toll on live music. For months, artists and bands had to perform online concerts so people could social distance. Most adhered to strict rules and mandates, while some did not. Yet, I am not here to write about the political divisions caused and further strengthened by Covid-19; I’m just stating that my wife and I followed the mandates and then some. We have been extra safe because she is an Emergency Medicine doctor and has seen many Covid-19 patients die. So, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead in Montclair, New Jersey, was our first live show in two years.
Waiting for the band to come on is something in its own right. Looking around, I see people talk, drink, and laugh, all while wearing their tie-dye shirts. Their faces and their eyes. Some are already blitzed out of their minds. Others look anxious like they hope the show starts before their edibles kick in. Finally, the lights go down. People cheer, and the band walks onto the stage.
I always hope that the first song will be the one that I have always wanted to hear live. But wait. I am also Team Phish, so I know that I don’t want my song to be the first song of the first set. That’s not the right time. Later, during the extended…Joe Russo casually begins to drum.
If I am one hundred percent honest, I have to say, the intro to the first set was my favorite part of the show. The way the band gradually moved from eclectic jam band jazz to “Doin’ That Rag” was why I wanted to see JRAD.
Camélia told her coworkers that we were going to see a Grateful Dead cover band. Ok. Kind of. After seeing all the tie-dye and Dead shirts, yes. I concede. They are a tribute band. But, I always tried to explain that the band members were skilled musicians who interpreted the Grateful Dead sound. You could hear that during the intros and in between songs. On the way home from the show, I told Camélia that it was like they were swirling a pot of Dead songs. The notes, chords, and tunes were all dissolved. However, the more they stirred it, the more it collected like mozzarella. When they found the curds, the audience could recognize a song, sometimes just for a riff. They stirred some more. Another one rose to the top, a little more developed. However, it still wasn’t right yet. Finally, they found “Dark Hollow.”
During the first set, they played five songs that took an entire hour. I wasn’t sure Camélia could handle it, but she did. In fact, on the way back to the hotel room, she said she liked the first set the best. Based on the songs they played, I could not disagree. However, the second set was when they exploded.
I was beginning to understand, or at least thought I did. JRAD was a jazz band between songs and a cover band when they settled on something. Dissonant. Melodic. Free Jazz. Dead sing-a-long. However, during the second set, the jazz portions grew in intensity. In fact, “Althea” was a banger unlike I could have ever imagined it being. And going into “Born Cross-Eyed.” Damn. Into “Truckin’.” This was the most intense part of the show. While I wasn’t the hugest fan of “Foolish Heart,” it led into “Werewolves of London,” which showcased Marco Benevento.
“Bertha” was the encore, and JRAD left everything on the playing field. Afterward, Joe Russo stood behind the drums for a moment. I wasn’t sure that he was going to be able to walk off the stage without assistance. He looked totally drained. And after watching him bang the drums during the encore, I could understand why.
This show was perfect for my 46th birthday. It was NOT just Grateful Dead covers. JRAD is made up of musicians who love their craft and respect a band that paved the way. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It was a great way to get back into the live music scene. Being a few feet away from the band and dancing while the music breaks up my clogged chakras, I love life. Experiencing live music is something I will forever appreciate.