The Hamilton Brothers Join Forces One MORE! Time: Part Two

July 21, 2023
Marty Halpern

The departure of Jim Hamilton, Joe D’Amico, and Nick Desiderio just as Brothers Past was gaining legitimate momentum was a seismic shift for Tom Hamilton. It was now up to the introverted, anxiety ridden Hamilton to keep his music going. With keyboardist Tom McKee fully committed, that’s exactly what he did.  Moving on without his brother for the second time was an adjustment for Hamilton, but he worked through it. Hamilton continues, “Tom and I added a rhythm section. We worked hard. Found a place called Rex’s in West Chester. It was a punk bar. Low ceilings, dark, and smelled like piss. We convinced the guy to let us play each Thursday. For the first six months, there were a handful of people each week. After a year, we sold out every weekend. We went from playing in front of five people to playing the main stage at Bonnaroo in about five years.” 

To McKee, it was obvious the other Tom had something special he wanted to be a part of. “My mom thought I was crazy. I felt it when I met Tom. I was like this guy should be playing music in front of thousands of people. I was ready to be there for the ride. Do anything I could to inspire him and make his songs better. I hoped he would want the same things for me. We did that for a long time with the original MORE! and then what became Brothers Past.” 

With Clay Parnell on bass and Rick Lowenberg on drums, Brothers Past self-released their debut album “Elements” in 2001. Hamilton had weathered the storms that knocked him off course and had something official to show for it. He put his head down and stayed focused on the work needed to keep his musical career moving forward. Hamilton acknowledges the vital importance music has in his life. “We didn’t grow up in the best part of Philly. Jim and I have talked a lot about the people who we grew up with. They ended up on drugs, in jail, or dead. We were like man it’s crazy, how did we get out of it? The answer is the music. We had something to lose if we fucked up too big. That was the joy. The ability to play music. That’s what kept us out of jail. It kept me from going too far. If it’s going to infringe on my ability to play gigs, I’d have to check in on myself. It was self preservation and anxiety. It was loving music so much, the fear of losing the one thing I had was too much. This made me feel whole.” 

With an album under their belt, things didn’t slow down for this version of Brothers Past. They grinded it out on the road and released three more albums over the next four years. “A Wonderful Day,” “Statepolice,” and the prophetic “This Feeling’s Called Goodbye.”  

While Brothers Past was gaining momentum, the original members who left the band were on different sides of the planet. Once again making their reunion over two decades later practically impossible. Jim was in the military going back and forth to Afghanistan. Music remained a part of Joe D’Amico’s life, although touring and making albums were the furthest thing from his mind. Nick Desiderio was finished with music completely, but still had the magical box of tapes from the years before Brothers Past was officially Brothers Past.  

Each step forward was essential for Hamilton to continue his always expanding musical vision. Complacency is not an option. He is laser focused on creating the music that’s currently inspiring him. That’s how he measures himself. Not by the chicks, money, or number of screaming fans. The ability to keep that focus at his core would be crucial for Hamilton to carve his path forward. It was about to be put to a critical test. 

Brothers Past was making its way in the exploding jam band scene. They were building a dedicated following just like their peers moe., The Disco Biscuits, Lake Trout, Dave Matthews, The New Deal, and numerous others. Sadly, that success, as it has infinite times, would start to reveal some foundational cracks in the true vision of the band.  

Hamilton remembers how Brother Past started to unravel. “We were doing the thing. We created a community. For a couple of records, we were really focused on doing cool shit. Making the best art we can make. Then that stopped being the thing. There was a disconnect between wanting to do what the fans want and what we want. The partying picked up and we had some ego stuff. I was like let’s not forget why the fuck were doing this. The lifestyle part of it made it where the four of us weren’t on the same page.” 

Things came to a head when Hamilton’s vision for the next Brothers Past album was shot down by a member of the band, “My idea was to make the next record like Led Zeppelin III.” Hamilton recalls. “Side A is the most punishing rock and roll you can have, and side B is acoustic.  I wanted to do the same thing. Make side A this really insane electronic music and then side B basically an acoustic EP. I brought some songs to the band and was told by one of the guys, “If you want to play this bull shit, you should start a different band.” So, I was like ok, fuck you. This is where the muse is taking me. My artistic direction got us as far as we are. There’s no reason to stop listening to me.” 

And poof! Hamilton detached himself from the naysayers. Just as he’d done his entire life, he focused on the music. Not its fringe benefits. He kept the faith and stayed on the path that allowed him to bring his musical visions to life. It was far from the straightest path. As he would immediately see, it would be a path filled with friends and musical peers that would give him the creative fuel needed to continue to grow and blossom. 

Tom Hamilton Jr and Tom Hamilton Sr. (photo Andrew Blackstein)

He continues, “Things were getting weird at the time. If I get excited about something, that’s what I want to do. I’m always trying to get better. Whether it’s guitar playing, song writing or singing. The separation of me and the Brothers Past guys came because I didn’t want to keep making the same shit. Let’s be ambitious and try new things. That’s not where those guys were. Being the leader of the band is like being a coach. If you lose the locker room, you’re no longer an effective coach or team. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is.” 

Hamilton reflects on the time when Brothers Past became a thing of the past. “We tried to keep things growing. Eventually the personnel realized that Joe, Nick, and Jim were special. What the five of us had was special. Finding same minded, group oriented people was impossible. Clay and Rick were great bandmates, but they didn’t bring to the table the same amount of creativity Joe, Jim, and Nick did. The band became where McKee and I were the primary song writers and creators.” 

   There was a time American Babies was just JRAD without Marco 

The split of Brothers Past would prove to be a positive for Hamilton’s career. He would recruit musicians who wanted to bring his creative visions to life. His latest musical venture, American Babies was born. Coach Hamilton hit the lottery with his drummer, noting “I ran into Joe Russo at a festival. I played him some demos I wanted to record. Joe was like dude I fuckin love this shit. We were friends at this point but didn’t have much contact. I eventually met Marco Benevento and Dave Dreiwitz through Joe. I kind of knew Scott Metzger through the Wetlands from his band Rana. We weren’t buds. Unless I know for sure someone cares I exist, I have too much anxiety to talk to strangers.” 

Fate and timing crossed paths again allowing Hamilton to reunite with his brother Jim who joined American Babies on bass. Tom continues, “I told everyone to come to the studio at Ardmore. We were going to make an album and track the thing live. I got Aron Magner from the Disco Biscuits to play piano. One of Joe’s buddies Kevin Kendrick came in to do vibes. I wanted to make a record that had all these people I was meeting on the scene. I was very much into our scene and wanted to bring as much of it together as I can.” 

The resulting 2008 self titled debut “American Babies” thrust Hamilton and his latest collection of musicians back in the jam band conversation. The first three songs on the album “Invite Your Friends,” “Baby, Don’t Cry,” and “Swimming at Night” were the same songs his former Brothers Past bandmates didn’t want to record.  

American Babies Jim Hamilton & Scott Metzger

The Babies hit the road, but not before Hamilton added an integral member to help him get over being burned out playing the electric guitar. “The reason Scott Metzger was in the band is because I was so fucking tired of playing leads.” Hamilton adds. “From the time I was 12 until then. Being the guitar dude. I was like, fuck it, I’m so over it. It was a gut check, but it came back to I love doing this. I love making shit and that was enough of a reason to keep doing it. It still is.” 

In 2007, American Babies was booked as the opening act for a tour with guitar great Derek Trucks. Both Hamiltons had met Trucks in the late 90’s during their time in the original Brothers Past. The contrast between the Babies travel set up compared to Trucks’s was not lost on Jim, “When we opened for Derek Trucks. He had a tour bus and a trailer. We had a Chrysler minivan. We’d pull up in the back of the huge theatres and park our rinky dink minivan next to the big buses. It was funny the juxtaposition of the two.” 

Tom recalls a gracious Derek Trucks allowing him to awaken his electric guitar chops. “I was so anti guitar and played acoustic that entire tour. At the end, Derek’s manager asked if I wanted to sit in on a tune. It was nerve racking. I hadn’t played lead guitar the whole time. Derek is the nicest dude and I personally think he’s the greatest guitar player alive. It was a great time, a great hang. He took it easy on me and didn’t run circles around me.” 

Again, the world was lining up in both Hamilton’s favor. Their Babies debut reaffirmed the unique musical synergy they shared. They were traveling with Joe Russo and Scott Metzger. When Jim couldn’t play due to a military obligation, the band would turn to Dave Dreiwitz to fill in. As Hamilton points out matter of factly, “There was a version of American Babies that was just JRAD without Marco.” 

When the band hit the road, Russo had one rule. Jim recalls, “When we were in the car, I would always want to turn on one of my favorite Dead shows. Joe would always say, Fuck, I don’t want to listen to the Dead. Russo hated putting Dead shows on. Pretty fucking ironic. He always appreciated them and had the utmost respect for them. It just wasn’t his thing.” 

Tom also remembers Russo’s in van musical preferences, “Joe used to always make fun of Jim and I for liking the Grateful Dead. We weren’t allowed to listen to the Dead in the van when we drove around. It was crazy.” 

Not listening to the Dead was a small price to pay for the Hamiltons. They had made it through numerous hurdles, roadblocks, twists of fate, etc. to get to this point. With young heavyweights Joe Russo and Scott Metzger by their side, the road ahead finally appeared to be open and ready for some serious exploration.  

When life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door.  

American Babies was rolling out of the gates, and it didn’t take long to book some serious gigs. They had the tour with Derek Trucks. They opened for Sheryl Crow and Blind Melon. They also landed coveted spots at Bonnaroo, SXSW, and Langarado music festivals.  

Just as it had done with Future Presence and the initial Brothers Past, fate stepped in creating another major pothole for the Hamiltons. This time in the most ironic way. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh recruited Russo to play drums for a new band he was starting with fellow GD member Bob Weir. Russo, who wouldn’t let the Hamiltons listen to the Dead in the tour van, was about to become the drummer for Furthur and immerse himself in all things Grateful Dead. The smooth open road the Hamiltons, Metzger and Russo were traveling with American Babies was headed full speed into a dead end. 

With Russo heading to Furthur, the dominoes continued to fall for American Babies. Jim was called back to active duty, forcing him to leave the band. Metzger was becoming a sought after New York session musician, and just like that, Tom Hamilton was back to square one. Again.

Fortunately, Hamilton found another creative muse around this time. He reconnected with childhood friend Peter Tramo. The reunion created an instant bond and the pair have worked together ever since. Hamilton looks back at his early Philly days with Tramo. “I grew up with Peter. Overbrook in West Philly. It was split in two halves, up the hill and down the hill. Very much like ‘The Outsiders.’ Pete and I were basically the same dude except I was up the hill and he was down the hill. We were into art and music. Not the fights and turf wars of the neighborhood. We both left as soon as we could. He moved to LA and became a studio engineer. He’s also an incredible songwriter. We hadn’t seen each other in 12 years. I went into his studio, saw him and was like, Yo dude. We talked and caught up. Do the two dogs sniffing each other’s asses thing. I was like this is a cool studio we should do something.” 

Despite the initial American Babies lineup moving on to other projects, the Tramo – Hamilton connection would strengthen over the next three American Babies releases. 2011’s “Flawed Logic” got things started. The album had three songs with, now Furthur’s Joe Russo. Eric Slick and Scott Metzger also contributed to the sophomore effort.  

Hamilton picks up the tale for the final two American Babies albums, “Pete and I started working on “Knives and Teeth.” It was supercool. We discovered how eye to eye we were. It’s the darkest and most transitional sounding record I’ve made. At the end we both felt strongly we should continue to work together. We tore his studio down and redesigned it. We decided to write the next record together. That was “An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, which I stand by is the best album I’ve ever made in any project. It’s a beautiful album. It’s well written and well recorded. I found I enjoyed working like that. I wasn’t a solo artist. It was me and Pete. From there Ghost Light started. Raina Mullen worked on the Epic album as a singer. We kept working together and that turned into, hey let’s try to write together. That turned into Ghost Light.” 

While Hamilton’s American Babies creative output in the studio was flourishing, finding musicians to bring the music to life on the road was a challenge. “For the next few records, I’d write an album and put a band together to tour.” Hamilton remembers, “When it was time to get off the road and make a new album, I’d usually end up losing that band and starting over. I did that for three records, and it was a drag having to constantly start from scratch every couple of years.” 

A decade and a half into a constantly winding musical career, Hamilton found himself at a crossroads. With “Knives and Teeth” and “An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark” he was at, by his own admission, the peak of his musical output. Staying laser focused on the quality of the music was paying off. Creatively that is.  

Financially, Hamilton was still at a point where he recalls, “I wasn’t turning down any gigs.” It’s not cheap to be an independent touring musician. Hamilton kept the wheels rolling despite numerous setbacks. He was treading water which was a fair price to get his music into the world. Over the years, the offers were there to play other musicians’ music, but Hamilton just couldn’t pull the trigger. “I got offered gigs that weren’t my music, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do.” He explains. “Ironically, the only exit strategy out of that I gave myself is, I always said the only music I would play that’s not mine is the Grateful Dead. I only said that because the idea of it becoming a thing was so far from reality. Eventually the JRAD thing happened which was unbelievable.” 

In 2013, one of Hamilton’s musical roads would reach the end of a long detour. He’d cross paths with his old American Babies drummer Joe Russo. Russo was crushing it in Furthur. With musical gods Bob Weir and Phil Lesh playing in front of him nightly, Russo quickly discovered the Hamilton brothers weren’t so crazy for wanting to listen to the Grateful Dead in the tour van years earlier.  

Russo was putting together a band to play at the annual Freaks Ball fundraiser. Nothing serious, just a night of fun. The initial plan was to play a set of Led Zeppelin covers as Russo was doing with his side project Bustle In Your Hedgerow. But fate stepped in, and it was changed to a set of Grateful Dead tunes instead. The musicians Russo chose, Hamilton, Scott Metzger, Dave Dreiwitz and Marco Benevento had a familiar connection. The nights where Tom Hamilton’s American Babies was just JRAD without Marco was about to be “with” Marco. January 26, 2013, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead was born. 

This would be a night that would cement Hamilton’s musical future. His perseverance paid off. All the crushing wrong turns and roadblocks were in the past. The one-off Freaks gig exploded and the impossibility of only playing in a band that covered Grateful Dead music was possible. Another impossibility that had to come to life in order for the young Philly MORE! kids to reform a decade later.  

Hamilton wraps up part two reflecting on the ripples created from that magical night at the Freaks Ball. “When the JRAD thing happened, that was crazy. None of us wanted to do it. It wasn’t, here’s a thing let’s keep doing it. It was, that was fun now I’m going to go back to eating Raman noodles and playing my music. Marco was the same. Whatever everyone was doing, we went back to our corners and did our things. When we had the talk about do we want to do the JRAD thing, I realized we are improvising most of the show. It’s mostly us making shit up. It’s not method acting, and I don’t have to pretend to be Jerry Garcia. We still get to do our own thing and be who we are. It’s not that many shows a year. We can make a living that affords us to pursue the art we’ve been pursuing. That was the motivation. It was a good enough reason for me to do it. Because of that is why MORE! exists. Because of JRAD, I was able to build a recording studio and facilitate the sessions.” 

Coming up in Part 3, while it’s not all smooth sailing moving forward for Hamilton, the roughest seas are behind him. His world finally lines up to where the musical impossibilities work for, instead of against him. An incredible tale of how a box of tapes brought the Hamilton brothers together one MORE! time.  

Dedicated to Ron Colagreco

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