Westville no match for JRAD

July 9, 2021
Marty Halpern

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead finished the second half of its “Go to Haven” concert series at New Haven, Connecticut’s Westville Music Bowl with three more dominating performances. While the shows in May were rain-filled, the sun this time around made everyone in attendance joyous as they walked onto the former tennis courts.

Still under “social distancing” regulations, the well-spaced crowd watched as the opening jam evolved into a “New Speedway Boogie > Let It Grow” combo that let Westville know it was in for a fight. The game plan was more of the same for night one; guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger fired away as drummer Joe Russo, bassist Dave Dreiwitz, and Marco Benevento on keys blazed a path in front of them.  

Photo: Marty Halpern

The band slowed down the pace with “Black Muddy River” before tearing into a fervid “All Along the Watchtower,” the latter having not been played in 212 shows. A set-ending “Greatest Story Ever Told” sandwich with a meaty ”Dear Prudence” jam in the middle put JRAD ahead to stay on night one. 

It was more of the same in the second set, as a Springsteen, Dylan, Cash 1-2-3 punch of “Atlantic City,” “Tell Me Mama,” and “Big River” had the band rolling. Benevento’s solo during “Big River” made it feel like you were cruising the Mississippi River in a paddleboat. After ”Tennessee Jed,” the band moved into a unique “Cryptical Envelopment > Crazy Fingers” pairing. Hamilton’s spacey licks allowed “Crazy Fingers” to keep the psychedelic groove before moving into “The Other One” and set-closing “Stella Blue.” 

With nine minutes on the clock before the strict 10 p.m. curfew, Russo handed the reins to Benevento, who sent the crowd home howling with the first “Werewolves of London” in 40 shows. 

A bouncy “They Love Each Other” kicked off night two at Westville. Metzger and the band’s take on Bob Weir’s “Gonesville,” a song that doesn’t pop up often but fits the occasion perfectly when it does, was next. Everyone got a chance to take a turn out front during a spaced out “Cumberland Blues” that moved right into a “Row Jimmy” that had a “churchy” feel to it thanks to Benevento’s organ. 

Photo: Marty Halpern

With defeat looming again on night two, Westville reached into its bag of tricks for the only advantage it had – the weather, as the skies opened up again. The set-closing “Mr. Charlie > Viola Lee Blues > Brown Eyed Women,” had musical and lyrical teases from earlier songs, and a mammoth jam in “Brown Eyed Women” had the fans more concerned with how the official setlist would be scored as opposed to the unfortunate rainstorm. 

Undaunted by the steady rain, the band kicked off the second set with an ironic “Here Comes Sunshine.” Packed with fat jams from Metzger and Hamilton, the band continued at full throttle through “Uncle John’s Band,” “Alligator,” and “Women are Smarter.”

Photo: Marty Halpern

Things took a turn at that point. After a subtle tease the night before, the band worked its way into an otherworldly “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” A pure example of what JRAD has become, this version soared with a Metzger/Benevento/Hamilton-led jam session that had the crowd bouncing in every direction, somehow managing to miss every drop of the incessant rain. 

“Peggy-O” finished the set and with “My Brother Esau” as the encore, the crowd clamored to the parking lots, ultimately discovering they had been in the pouring rain for 90 minutes. 

The band decided to have some fun on their sixth and final “Go to Haven” show. Five extra microphones were set up next to Metzger’s gear, so, it was obvious this show was going to start with a Bogie and then some.  

Photo: Marty Halpern

As show time hit, fans noticed music was coming from the second level instead of the stage. Frequent collaborator Stuart Bogie and pals Jordan McLean (trumpet), Raymond Mason (trombone), Cochemea Gastelum (sax & flute), and John Altieri (sousaphone & trumpet) emerged from the second level, leading a pre-Mardi Gras parade through the amused crowd before joining the band on stage to continue the New Orleans sound with “Aiko Aiko.”

“China Cat Sunflower” kept things moving, leading to The Band’s “Ophelia.” Marco Benevento took vocals on the breakout “Operator,” a tune played live by the Grateful Dead only a handful of times.  

Hamilton found a spacey Jerry Garcia midi tone when he lead the band into a jam that turned into a crowd-pleasing combo of The Beatles “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” and Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” The back-and-forth between the band and horn section accentuated the joy of the crowd, who took in a beautiful day of sunshine. A peppy “Casey Jones” intertwined with the horns closed set one, leaving numerous songs not played in the first five and a half shows on the table for the final set. 

Photo: Marty Halpern

“Alabama Getaway” set the pace for the final stanza. Bogie returned on sax for “Feels Like A Stranger,” which had Hamilton so engrossed in his fiery solo his body was nearly in convulsions. “Mississippi Half Step” was the last opportunity for the crowd to catch its breath before the band and horns took an early victory lap. A lengthy jam gradually transitioned into “Good Lovin” featuring a flute solo from Gastelum that left most of the crowd and band with their mouths agape.  

A breakout of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock,” followed by another breakout of Junior Walker and the Allstars “I’m a Roadrunner,” had the crowd wondering what other treats lay ahead. It didn’t take long for an answer as violinist and Metzger’s fiancé Katie Jacoby was joined the fun on The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag.” The band and crowd still had plenty of energy for a long run at Jerry Garcia’s “Cats Under the Stars” before ending the festivities with a Las Vegas Elvis-style “CC Rider” that made full use of the horn section.  

Russo expressed his happiness with the set closer, dropping several jubilant f-bombs before introducing the band. Then he offered two innocent sentences that had a lot behind them. “Trying to keep it fresh. Trying to keep it interesting.”  

The band remained off the “Dead” grid for the encore, reviving “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for the first time in 92 shows. 

Benevento, whose numerous solos and vocals stood out the entire weekend, took home the game ball. With six triumphant outings in a row, the schedule (including three days at Lockn in August) doesn’t get any easier for JRAD.

While Russo certainly didn’t give much thought to his earlier words, they perfectly summed up the only two things most of the crowd was there for – something fresh and interesting, which the band has been serving up since day one. With no song repeats in six shows and a long list of songs still waiting for their 2021 debut, it will be interesting to see how far JRAD will continue to expand their repertoire to keep things fresh and interesting.  

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