When the crowd at Dead and Company’s 2023 Playing in the Sand (PITS) gathered to watch Tom Hamilton’s acoustic set, many might have thought a weekend of Riviera Maya excess was causing them to see double. They weren’t. Hamilton was joined by his older brother and MORE! bandmate Jim for the set. Brothers creating music together is nothing new. The Hamilton’s musical path started with Jim teaching Tom to play guitar when they were kids. The road from there to this festival alongside Grateful Dead founding members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann is filled with enough starts and stops, detours, dead ends, and plot twists a movie audience would have a hard time believing.
Just being asked to play at the final PITS is one of many impossibilities to come to life for the Hamiltons. At the time MORE! hadn’t released a studio album. Their musical output was a couple of livestreams during Covid. They hadn’t even played a show for the public. Who was MORE!? How can a band almost all of the PITS festivalgoers knew nothing about be invited to play alongside the highest rung of the musical totem pole?
To answer that takes another near statistical impossibility to occur, the band to exist. MORE! is made up of both Hamiltons, Joe D’Amico (bass), Tom McKee (piano/keys) and Ghost Light’s Scotty Zwang (drums). Zwang took over for original drummer Nick Desiderio who no longer plays music. The original band formed in the late 90’s and stayed together just under two years before everyone went off in different directions. The band wasn’t called MORE! back then. They were the original lineup for Tom’s first band Brothers Past. This lineup disbanded before 2001’s BP debut “Elements.” Most of the proof the initial version of Brothers Past existed are great memories and a box of tapes with live recordings magically captured back in the day. Twenty years later, that box of tapes would be the reason MORE! would rise from the ashes stronger than ever.
The initial Brothers Past is one of multiple promising musical projects the Hamiltons started only to watch fall apart before it could fully blossom. Fate brought the brothers together again in the mid 2000’s for Tom’s second band American Babies. On certain nights, the Babies consisted of Tom Hamilton, Scott Metzger, Dave Dreiwitz, and Joe Russo. That’s right, it was Joe Russo’s Almost Dead minus Marco Benevento well before the thought of a Joe Russo led Grateful Dead cover band was the tiniest micro chasm of space dust in the universe.
This version of the Babies was the furthest thing from a cover band. They created enough momentum to land gigs at Bonnaroo and SXSW festivals. With the wheels rolling on another project, bad timing and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh collided to derail this incarnation of American Babies and send the Hamilton brothers on another detour in completely opposite directions. A long and winding road that took years to converge again. To fully understand the incredible journey the Hamiltons have taken, it’s best to start at…
The Hamiltons grew up in Philadelphia where the entire family was involved in some element of music because “It’s what we did” according to Tom. Technically, it’s Tom Jr. (son of Marian and Tom Hamilton Sr.). Tom Sr. is a military veteran. He’s also a heck of a musician able to deftly handle himself on multiple instruments.
Jim’s musical journey began by learning to play a drum kit a family friend found in the trash. In the mid-80’s and still just a teen, Jim joined his father’s “Homegrown Whiteboy Blues Band.” Eventually, Jim’s desire to play the drums started to wane. A new instrument was calling him. He remembers, “Around ‘88 or so I wanted to start playing guitar. I had learned a little here and there. I also realized I had a voice and could sing. Plus, I realized you can get more chicks playing the guitar. For a 14 year old boy, that will win every time. After that, I never went back to the drums.”
The more Jim learned on the guitar, the stronger his bond grew with Tom. According to Jim, the love of the guitar is an area they’re in complete agreement on. “When Tom was 14 or 15 and I was out there playing in bars, we started bonding more. We’re a lot different. Our sense of humor and taste for music are the same. Everything else is black and white. It’s different, but in a complimentary way.”
Jim is the extrovert of the Hamilton brothers. Like almost everything else, Tom is the opposite. An introvert fighting with anxiety. Tom found much needed strength learning to play guitar with his brother at his side. Jim continues, “Tommy wanted to be with the guys. He’d watch us play in the basement and obviously wanted to be a part of that. I would teach Tom every time I learned something. We’d sit there listening to Dead albums like “Skull and Roses.” Jerry would be in one speaker and Bob in the other. We’d take turns. I’d be like I’ll take the Jerry part and you take Bob. Then we’d switch. We’d learn how to identify all the things going on in the music.”
From there, Jim says, it didn’t take long for the pupil to become the teacher. “When he was in his early teens, Tom figured out he could play Van Halen. He said, hey I learned how to finger tap. He started playing “Eruption.” He was 14. I was like get the fuck out of here, I can’t do that. By the time he was 15 or 16 he surpassed me. I wasn’t teaching him anymore. He was teaching me.”
With the chops to hang with his older brother, the opportunity to showcase his skills in public wasn’t far behind. The guitarist for Jim’s band Future Presence bailed before a gig at Philly’s Chestnut Cabaret kicking open the door for Tom. Jim recalls, “I told the guys my brother plays with me every day. He knows all the shit we did. It was a no brainer. I was like come on. He was happier than a pig in shit. So was I. That was his first gig. From there Tom was a part of the band and we played together for a while from that point on.”
For those keeping score, Future Presence was the Hamiltons first band. Joined by Jesse Weber on bass and Mark Thornton on drums, the band got some traction playing gigs around Philadelphia and colleges in the area.
With no expectations of making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band fizzled out in 1994. Not the first or millionth time that’s happened for a local cover band. It did create the first major hurdle for the Hamiltons to perform together at PITS a quarter of a century later. Jim stopped playing in bands. He began attending the University of the Arts in Philadelphia while working in construction. For Tom, his first foray playing in public gave him plenty of momentum to keep going. It also presented a foe who’d challenge him for years, anxiety. He reflects, “I was a very anxious kid. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I had terrible social anxiety. The inner workings of Jim’s band made me nervous. Those guys were all older and I was a kid. I didn’t understand people’s different personalities. I was young, but I got it. And it wasn’t my band. That just gave me time to get better.”
With Jim out of the musical picture, Tom spent his high school days playing guitar and expanding his mind. “I had a unique group of friends in high school who were really smart dudes.” He remembers, “They had a completely different background than me. We would spend the weekends hanging out. We would sit around and take acid. We wouldn’t go to concerts and take acid. We’d lock ourselves in our houses. The five of us would trip out and play chess or listen to records. We’d talk about who we are. What does it mean to be men. What are we trying to do with our lives. We dug in and used the mind-altering things to alter our minds. It allowed me to get into different music. That’s when I discovered Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, Uncle Tupelo. Stuff I wasn’t hip too. I discovered Phish in the early to mid 90’s. From 13-17 was when a lot of work on myself was done.”
Around this time, Tom started hanging out with Joe D’Amico whose father was both Hamiltons music teacher. It didn’t take long to find a connection and the roots of what would ultimately become MORE! start to take shape. “I was into Stevie Ray Vaughan, Alice in Chains, and the Dead at the time.” Tom recalls. “An eclectic spattering of music. Turned out Joe was into the same shit. I’d go to his house and play guitar. It started taking form my senior year. It was me Joe, Nick Desiderio, and Tom Pizzica.”
For D’Amico, growing up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood as his bandmates created a unique musical bond that still exists today. “My dad was the middle school music teacher. He taught Tom and Jim. They have tremendous respect for my dad and always speak highly of him. That’s an old connection and was important to their musical development. There’s some unexplainable connection because of that. Growing up together affects the chemistry of the band. We all have some sort of very basic music education that came from the same source. Before we even understood Rock and Roll and all that.”
As the teens practiced in the basement, fate stepped in again when Pizzica, who would become a celebrity chef, left the band. This created a hole that would be filled in with a familiar face… Jim Hamilton. “When Tom was in high school, I’d stop by my mom’s and he’d be in there with his friends. Kind of like what we used to do. One day they were playing when I came home from work. I thought these guys sounded pretty decent. They were messing around with “Almost Cut My Hair.” That was one I always liked to sing. I sang it and played with them. It was pretty good. They were like, we’d love it if you want to play too. I was like shit yeah. I’ll do this. We weren’t playing gigs, we would just play. Once I came in and started doing it a bit, we decided it was good enough to do something with. We started to write originals.”
For Tom, the opportunity to connect with his brother again musically was a no brainer. He adds, “Pizzica left so I thought Jim might want to join. He was 21 and I was 17. He said yes and we started playing together. From there it was quick. We plugged into the local scene that we had done with Jim’s band. We did a lot of covers and learned how to write songs. Then we met Tom McKee at Cabrini College.”
CABRINI COLLEGE SPRING FLING 1998
The final piece of the MORE! puzzle would fall into place after a random meeting with Tom McKee at Cabrini College’s Spring Fling in 1998. Hamilton bumped into McKee at a jazz club after his gig. Their memory of the fateful first meeting is almost identical. Hamilton begins, “We played a gig at Cabrini. Some kind of Spring Fling. That night we all went to a jazz bar. Tom was there. He was like, I saw your set. It was great but you could use a keyboard player. We invited him to come by and that was that. Tom was in the band. That was June 1998 and we worked very hard from there to when things fell apart in April 2000.”
McKee adds, “There was an article about a band that was into Phish and the Grateful Dead playing at our Spring Fling. That caught my eye because that was the type of music I was listening to at the time. I saw the show. Later that night I was at a jazz club. Tom rolled in with a girl from my college. I said I saw your set and really dug it. He was like we’re looking for a keyboard player. We traded phone numbers. I called and we connected. We jammed a bit. I learned some of his songs. Taught him some of mine and it turned into a beautiful cycle of creative energy.”
While the musical connection between the two Toms was instant, one issue caused a slight delay in moving forward. McKee remembers, “I called Tom a few days later. This was the 90’s and the Flyers were in the middle of a Stanley Cup run. I called Tom and said, ‘Hey it’s Tom.’ He was like, the Flyers are on. I’ll call you back and immediately hung up the phone. I thought who likes the Flyers this much? He’s still like that to this day.”
With McKee on board the band took off creatively, eventually moving into a home together. The perfect opportunity to build on the chemistry this group of young, green musicians was somehow creating. Eventually, as it often does, the question of is “just getting by” worth the time and effort to keep things going? Even if the creative output was beyond “just getting by” good.
Ultimately, Jim recalls, the cracks grew too big, and things fell apart. “We were on the cusp of being big enough to do it for a living. Not a good living. We were getting enough gigs it was hard to keep a regular job. It was almost like shit or get off the pot. McKee was done in college. Joe had to finish his senior year and was adamant he couldn’t quit school. I had four years on most of these guys. Hadn’t done anything with my life. Didn’t have a real job. Was partying more than I probably should. Joe was serious, he couldn’t continue. Tommy had anxiety at times. He didn’t know if he could get on stage. Nick was like I could care less. McKee was like whatever everyone else wants to do. I was like fuck it, can’t do it anymore. I made the hard decision to take a different path.”
McKee also reflects on how life stepped in to derail the magic a group of Philly neighborhood kids were able to create. “We were a group of five young guys. We all had different goals and ambitions. Still young enough to think the only way to get to your goals is to knock down that wall. Sometimes you have to take a step back and realize there’s more than one way to get from here to there. Joe wanted to finish college, which was a very logical and smart thing to do. The band had moved into a house. Some people were there, and others weren’t. That caused some weird creative dynamics. Some thought they were in the mix, and it was hard for others to roll up and join something in progress. Some of us were ready to pursue things while others weren’t sure that was the life they wanted.”
Just like that, it was over. Jim, Joe, and Nick left the band. Only the two Toms remained. Leaving Hamilton in a world where he’d have to fight for himself. “It was devastating. That was a real problem. Losing Jim was the biggest thing for me. I had only known playing music with him. I’m anxious and quiet. He was the outgoing one who let me be in my own world to do what I did artistically without having to talk to people. He was also my safety blanket. I got into music with him and because of him. Then he was like you’re on your own. I’m out. It was disorienting. We were making progress and saw how possible it was to be able to build this thing. People were reacting positively to what we were doing.”
The trio of Jim, Joe, and Nick didn’t leave the band to join another. They were done with the music business. Jim stopped playing guitar and joined the military. It was mid-2000 and the odds of this project ever seeing the light of day again had to be as close to zero as you can get.
Coming up in part two, with his first band in tatters, Tom dusts himself off and claws his way into the middle of the burgeoning Jam Band scene. A plot shifting tale that includes traveling and sharing a stage with a young Derek Trucks to having Phil Lesh unintentionally alter the course of his second band American Babies. A band that included Joe Russo and Scott Metzger with Dave Dreiwitz sitting in on bass at times almost a decade before JRAD came to life. No matter the setback (or anxiety) Tom fights his way up the musical ladder eventually sharing the stage with the same musical legends he used to imitate with his brother when they were kids.
Twisted in the middle is the incredible tale of how the reunion of the Hamiltons, McKee, and D’Amico two decades later would come to pass. How MORE! would give the Hamiltons one more chance to play music together. Stay tuned.
Dedicated to Ron Colagreco.
Photos/Videos courtesy- Tom Hamilton Jr, Tom Hamilton Sr. Jim Hamilton, Kris Pancoast