Nearly 500 days since they last played in front of fans, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead kicked off their post-pandemic 2021 touring schedule with three rainy sold out shows at a tennis center now known as the Westville Music Bowl.
Social distancing gave fans plenty of room to release the pent-up energy from not seeing the band for 15 months, but with constant rain and 40 degree temperatures, it took the audience an extra minute or two shake the rust off. By the time night one’s opening jam morphed into “Not Fade Away,” JRAD had first serve on the court where both Serena and Venus Williams have played.
From the get-go, guitarist Tom Hamilton was on a mission to find new tones for his guitar. Hamilton, still riding high from his standout Hawaiian performances with Billy and the Kids, noodled around, continually finding the bigger and louder sounds he was searching for. “Reuben and Cherise” offered Hamilton the perfect opportunity to showcase these tones as he aced each direction he steered the jam.
Fellow guitarist Scott Metzger was not to be overlooked, and his ability to capture the “Dead Vibe” from unique country, rock, blues, and pyschedelic lines was prevalent as he and Hamilton volleyed guitar leads back and forth during “Minglewood Blues,” “Sugaree” and “The Wheel” before ending the set with “Touch of Grey.”
A pair of dust-offs bookmarked the second set as Metzger opened with the band’s second take at Bob Dylan’s ”When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and his twangy vocals were spot-on. Hamilton subsequently served up his most ferocious licks of the night during “Foolish Heart.” Metzger was able to return serve with his take on “Slipknot,” moving the band in and out of a ”Hey Bulldog Jam” before heading into ”Hell In A Bucket.” The pace of the match got so fast, the prune-y fingered fans were oblivious to the fact it was raining the hardest it had been all night.
A mammoth “Dancing In The Streets,” with solos from Russo, pianist Marco Benevento and bassist Dave Dreiwitz, left no doubt it was full speed ahead for the quintet. A poignant “Ripple” – not played in 44 shows – had everyone in the crowd singing along and Russo teary-eyed to close the second set.
Russo asked the crowd for a mulligan from last year’s Capitol Theatre shows, inviting band friend Chris Harford out for a non-comedic encore of “Fucking Up.” This was everything Russo had hoped for as the band sent the soaked fans home with a blistering tribute to songwriter Neil Young. Despite the long layoff and the rain, JRAD came through for a dominating victory on the tennis courts night one.
On night two, fans happily traded a few degrees cooler temperature for less rain, and friends joyfully danced from one seating pod to another, hugging as if they hadn’t seen them in a year and a half, and the vibe on the tennis courts was still buzzing from the night before.
Metzger had first serve this night, with Bob Dylan’s “Silvio.” Sporadically showing up on the setlist, it’s a song that fits Metzger perfectly. The crowd had plenty of opportunity to spread out and dance as “Bertha“ and “Me and My Uncle” literally and figuratively kept the crowd warmed up. ”Shakedown Street” brought the pace up even more, as Hamilton once again led the band into spacey territory with his amazing guitar tones.
Like the night before, each guitarist volleyed leads back and forth as Metzger took things back to that spacey zone in “Black Peter.” Each musician took turns keeping the crowd bouncing with set closer “The Music Never Stopped.”
Actual tennis aficionado Benevento opened set two with a cajun-y version of Dr. John’s “Such A Night.” From there, Westville was no contest for the band. It was one 60s/70s era slam after another. “Cream Puff War,” “Truckin” and “St Stephen” rallied the pace back and forth from full throttle to spacey psychedelia. Eventually, Russo called a 10-second timeout for everyone to catch their breath before ending “St. Stephen” and tearing into Dylan’s “Tough Mama” and ”I Know You Rider” to end the set. Memphis Jug Band’s “On The Road Again” reappeared after 127 shows as the encore, ending an easy victory for the band on night two.
JRAD started night three with a Bogie on its scorecard – Stuart Bogie that is. The frequent guest of the band was a great choice to add his saxophone and other wind instruments to the mix. It was an early 5:30 start to the show and raining again, but by this point, the crowd could not have cared less.
After a jazzy jam that fed perfectly into an “Eyes of the World” opener, there was plenty of heat coming from the stage to keep everyone’s mind on the music. The pace didn’t stop as they segued into “Estimated Prophet” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” before slowing down briefly for ”Candyman.”
Things picked up quickly to finish the set as a rocking “The Eleven” and closer “Franklin’s Tower” intensified the possibilities of what could happen in the final set in Westville.
The band meet expectations instantly, starting the final set with a “Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain” combo that, while possibly premature, could be one of the best musical moments of the year. Hamilton and Metzger were exceptional, bouncing leads back and forth and eventually simultaneously. Benevento’s solo and Bogie’s sax contributions had Russo and Dreiwitz blissfully keeping the beat going before morphing into “Beat it on Down the Line” and “He’s Gone.”
“Playing in the Band” turned into a Sunday night jazz fusion session as everyone ventured off into areas not visited the previous nights. “Samson and Delilah” and a “Born to Run” encore wrapped up a perfectly-written setlist for a rainy Sunday night and an easy victory for the band.
As soggy fans headed to the exits, there were several areas of agreement about the band’s first set of shows in over a year: the synergy created between Metzger and Hamilton is stronger, with both guitarists able to get to the same place while taking completely different routes; Hamilton’s vocals were great; it’s not a bad thing to have a Bogie on your scorecard; despite the layoff and weather the band has not lost a step; and finally, and everyone is ready for the 3-night rematch at Westville on June 18, 19, and 20.