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

July 29, 2023
Marty Halpern

The formation of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead to kick of 2013 would be a life and career changing event for Tom Hamilton. The one “miracle” out he gave himself for playing in a band that wasn’t his own music came to life. While JRAD would ultimately provide enough financial freedom to fully pursue his personal music ventures, it wasn’t until 2015 when the band fully committed to touring.  

Hamilton’s focus in 2013 was on his latest American Babies release “Knives and Teeth.” He and Peter Tramo quenched their thirst to bring their slanted visions to the world. As JRAD was getting things rolling, Hamilton’s ability to play the Grateful Dead catalogue was catching the eye of several important musicians. The first was former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann in 2014. One of rock and roll’s greatest drummers added Hamilton and longtime friend Aron Magner as founding members of his new Billy and the Kids band.  

Kreutzmann wasn’t the only Grateful Dead member Hamilton would share the stage with in 2014. Things came full circle for Hamilton when JRAD announced Phil Lesh would be joining their three night New Year’s Run. The same Phil Lesh who recruited Russo from Hamilton’s American Babies in 2008 effectively ending that version of the band was going to be sitting in with Hamilton’s band. 

Finally, the road forward was clearing. Hamilton was tasting some of the rewards for barreling through the many obstacles in his past. The forces that had conspired against him changed course. It took almost two decades, but Hamilton finally landed in the perfect spot. JRAD exploded in 2015 giving Hamilton more and more visibility. Most importantly, it provided the resources Hamilton needed to focus on his music. American Babies and then Ghost Light in 2017.  

Hamilton reflects on how everything finally started to fall in place, “The point of JRAD was how do we want to do this thing. It’s a weird thing to play covers but we get to do it our way. And it affords us the opportunity to make our original music. That’s why JRAD is so good. We don’t take it too seriously. We don’t suck the fun out of it. When it’s time to go, we’re all going. We’re all pushing the boulder in the same direction. Since I was fortunate to have the JRAD thing happen, I’ve put out two American Babies records, two Ghost Light records so far, two MORE! albums with a third on the way. A Lacuna album. I feel like I’ve held up my end of making my music while in JRAD. It’s validating and it feels good. I’ve been doing the work.”   

Kreutzmann would bring Hamilton along to headline at the Los Muertos festival in Mexico in 2017 where he’d share the stage with another Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir. The jam band spotlight was finally shining directly on Hamilton. The increased exposure allowed the world to see Hamilton’s guitar playing wasn’t limited to covering the Grateful Dead. 

He and Tramo constructed a new studio by hand in 2019. Neither knowing “The Ballroom” would be a spark to ignite an impossible band reunion in the not too distant future. Hamilton was super proud of his new digs. “We actually built it. It was so rewarding. When it’s you that swings the hammer, runs the electric, and puts in the drywall. We did the whole thing. I think the studio is awesome!” 

And then it happened. Nick Desiderio, the original drummer for Brothers Past a quarter century earlier reached out to Hamilton wanting to check out his new studio. He brought along a box of tapes he wanted Tom to digitalize. A magical box of tapes full of music from the original Brothers Past. Hamilton picks it up from there. “We hung out and I had all those tapes. I kept listening. When Covid hit, I really started listening to this shit. I was like, I love these songs. Utopiary Window, Corduroy Joe. I love this band. I thought about how could I play these tunes again. I knew I could play them with anyone, but it wouldn’t be same without the original band.”  

Next up for Hamilton, “I floated the idea to Tom McKee of reaching out to the band. Everything was locked down at this point, but people were just starting to socialize. Scotty Zwang was living with me. I was like do you guys want to get together and play. Nick didn’t play drums anymore. I said I’ve got a great drummer living with me. He’s not doing anything. He was down and learned five tunes.” 

Tom McKee also remembers how he reconnected with his former bandmates. “Tom had built a studio. Covid happened, and the world shut down. I think we went on a walk. The only time I had seen him in four months. Jim did a July 4th cookout. I went with Tom, and we had a great time. He wanted to get a band in to see what his studio sounded like. He asked Jim and I to come down. We were playing these songs without Joe. He had been out of the loop for a while. There was something missing. It was obvious from the get go. Instead of playing half assed versions of the songs, we said let’s get Joe in here.” 

Jim Hamilton looks back on the reunion with his old friends. “Tom had the tapes and said, ‘I was listening to some of that shit when we were kids and holy fuck, they’re good songs.’ I was like I can’t remember the last time I listened to that. He’s naming songs. I was like I remember that one. Not that one. Tommy was going to reach out to D’Amico to see if he was down with getting together. He wanted to get in the studio and play some of the old songs. Joe is another super creative guy. He can play any instrument. He thinks in weird ways. He’s like McKee. He’s a weird mother fucker too. Joe was down to play. Tom sent out the tunes to familiarize ourselves.” 

Almost two decades after going their separate ways, Tom and Jim Hamilton, Joe D’Amico, and Tom McKee were all in the same studio ready to reminisce on days and Brothers Past. Jim recalls the first session, “Before we played, we just hung. I can’t remember what we did first. I think we just picked a key. It felt like, if we stopped playing on April 20th, then today was April 21st.  Nothing had passed. It was weird and strange. We were all surprised. We were laughing and like ok that just happened. I don’t think anyone anticipated it being that natural. We thought it would be a bunch of “used to be’s” getting together. We just kept playing. We’d stop and listen to a song. Then we’d be like do you remember that song? Can you play it? We were like that was fun. Let’s do this again.” 

For Tom Hamilton, the reunion was a testament to his career long dedication to putting the music first. “After we stopped until we started playing again was basically a 20-year lesson in me learning how naïve I can be about what music is. Since I finished playing with those guys, I’ve tried to model everything I did like that band. All the way up to Ghost Light. The idea of everyone putting what’s best for the band first.” He adds, “Ego isn’t allowed in the room. It’s not about your idea over mine. It’s about what’s best for the song. That’s a discipline I’ve learned. You have to be open to it and practice patience and trust. Your motives have to be right. It’s not about getting a writing credit or anything to do with yourself. It’s about what’s the best thing for the art you’re trying to create. Is the goal to be famous or create good art? That disconnect has led to the downfall of all the bands I’ve been in since.” 

Like everyone else, Joe D’Amico was stunned at the results of the initial hang. “It was like hold on a second. This is good. This isn’t nostalgic. This is a new thing. As 19 year olds, we couldn’t play like that. We realized this is good and we have this familiar chemistry that came right back. That was the moment we thought, maybe we can do something. This is pretty darn good. The nostalgia was short lived. It was more like, what are we going to do with this.” 

After twenty years traveling roads that seemed impossible to ever merge, another impossibility happened. MORE! was born. MORE! was chosen as the name to avoid confusion between this original lineup of Brothers Past and the one that released albums. Somehow, every long, twisted, constantly shifting road life had sent the group on finally reconverged. With Scotty Zwang taking over for Nick Desiderio on drums, a livestream from The Ballroom was scheduled.  

Also recognizing the viability of MORE!, Tom Hamilton had a plan to get the band moving. “The next step was to do a stream. It’s not, let’s put our foot on the gas. Let’s get to a landmark and then move on from there. We had more songs, so we did the OohZaZoos in 2021. We made an album out of that as well. That turned into we’re having fun, let’s start writing material. Then, do we want to play where people can actually come. Covid was making sure we kept working in small steps. We couldn’t step on the gas because of how the world was shut down.”  

As the world opened back up MORE! was able to finally play in front of its first live audience. Hamilton continues, “With control of the safety measures we were able to do a small School of Rock show. Around 100 people. By 2022, we were still writing and ready to play another live show. We booked the Ardmore show for February 2023. Our goal was to just play a handful of shows in 2023. Then Playing in the Sand came along.” 

That’s right. With zero studio albums, two covid livestreams, and a couple of concerts before a combined crowd of about 250, MORE! was invited to play as part of Dead and Company’s final Playing in the Sand Festival in Mexico. A year earlier, the organizers of PITS rushed Hamilton to a private plane as a last second replacement for John Mayer, who had gotten Covid. Ultimately, 2022’s PITS was cancelled. Still, Hamilton racked up some serious goodwill with the organizers for his efforts.  

When Hamilton locked down MORE! for PITS, his first goal was to have the complete opposite experience from when he and Jim were at 2017’s Los Muertos. “Last time, I was in a bad place mentally and personally. I was dealing with a lot of shit and wasn’t happy with a lot of things. My manager at the time, a great guy, John was like we’re in a tropical paradise, you’re in a band with the Grateful Dead, your brother is here and you’re miserable. You need to figure out what the fuck you want out of life because if this isn’t making you happy, what will?” 

As the calendar rolled into January 2023, almost a decade to the day after that fateful night when Joe Russo’s Almost Dead was born, and a quarter century after Tom Hamilton, Jim Hamilton, and Joe D’Amico bumped into Tom McKee after the Cabrini College Spring Fling, MORE! hit the stage at Dead and Company’s Playing in the Sand. The first of two performances that weekend.  

Somehow, defying incalculable odds, a group of green 90’s Philly kids had found their way back together and were better than ever. Hamilton’s weekend went just as he hoped. “To be able to give that gift to my brother and the four of us was a no brainer. I’ve always maintained these guys are the best band going. For a band in our scene, I think this band is the gold standard. The songwriting is on par as the improvising is. I’ve always said if the four of us didn’t stop playing together, we would currently be one of the biggest bands in the scene. I think it’s a fucking travesty the people who know who I am don’t know who Jim Hamilton is, who Joe D’Amico is, and who Tom McKee is. Scotty has been on my musical journey for five years. That’s why I picked him to be in Ghost Light. I believed in his playing and wanted to bring awareness to him. Having him in MORE! is a great thing.” 

For McKee and D’Amico, the trip to Mexico was an unimaginable dream come true. McKee begins, “The first night, we got there 45 minutes before Dead and Company’s set. We got brought into the artist compound. We went from the shuttle bus to there’s Bob Weir, John Mayer, and Oteil. I’m not the kind of guy to walk up to someone and gush. It was in my head this is fucking cool. These guys are real and right here. I could snap a selfie with any of them if I wanted to blow my cool for the week. I told myself to act like I’d been there before. Probably the best musical experience of my life.” 

D’Amico adds, “Tom mentioned it was a possibility. There was more than one pinch yourself moment there. It was amazing. I was like is this what we’re really doing. We had only played a couple of shows and went out there and crushed it. It was an amazing experience we were lucky to have.” 

With PITS behind them, MORE! performed a hometown show at Philadelphia’s Ardmore in February 2023. According to Tom, the road map for more MORE! has been laid out, “The thing about this band that’s so awesome is there are four songwriters and four singers. Scott has a great voice too. We’re creative guys and have a huge backlog of tunes. Everyone is writing. Everyone is inspired. D’Amico has five songs; Jim has two or three. McKee has four. There’s all this material we’re gonna start recording and putting it out as we do it.” 

The afternoon after MORE!’s blistering late night set, PITS organizers scheduled Tom Hamilton to perform an acoustic set by the pool. The odds of him not including his brother Jim were a solid zero. The Hamiltons, who thirty plus years earlier taught themselves to play the guitar by listening to the Grateful Dead, were about to perform at their festival. The perfect ending to an impossible musical journey.  

Tom Hamilton Jr & Sr

Both Hamilton’s memories of their acoustic set leaves no doubt the two are brothers. Jim begins, “It was fun. It was surreal. We were literally on an island playing. That’s how it feels when we’re playing anyway. Tom said they wanted him to play an acoustic set. He asked if I wanted to do it. I said sure. What do you want to play. He was like, ‘I don’t know. Some Dead tunes. We’ll do what we do.’ At a MORE! rehearsal we practiced. I stayed at his house one night. Grabbed some acoustics and started playing. I did a song, he did one.” 

Jim and Tom Hamilton PITS 2023 Acoustic Set

As the gig got closer, Jim would try and get as much info as possible from his younger brother. “When we got there, I was like have you given any thought to what we’re doing? There are going to be people there. He was like, it will be fine. After the first MORE! show, I asked again, had he thought about the acoustic set. He was like, no. After the late night set, we were dragging ass. I asked Tom if he knew what kind of guitars we were using. He was like nope. We were completely unprepared. We’d call a tune and be like do you want to do this one or that one. It was a no plan, plan. Like we were on the couch with a bunch of people watching us.” 

Tom shares his thoughts on the acoustic invite. “They asked if I’d do an acoustic thing. I was like yeah sure. But if my brother is there, I’m not gonna not have him. This is what we do. It’s just who we are. When Jim and I hang out, guitars come out. We play songs and we make each other laugh. Say stupid shit and then play tunes. We’ll be like what do you want to play, and I’ll pick out a tune. Then it’s what do you want to play, and he’ll pick out a tune. It’s a fucking acoustic show, Jim and I do this all the time. Let’s enjoy playing music. Not take the fun out of it. Let’s kill it and tell dick jokes until we’re crying laughing. Why does it have to be any different because we’re at a pool with five thousand people?”  

After a lifetime of having everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them, the bond between the Hamilton brothers is as strong as ever. The path to their PITS acoustic set is a unique road that will never be duplicated. A perfect example of truth is stranger than fiction. Who knows what the future holds for Tom, Jim, MORE!, Ghost Light, JRAD, etc. Given the past, it’s gonna be a hell of a ride. No matter what, Tom and Jim will always be able to look back to when a global pandemic shifted the world so the Hamilton brothers could play music together one MORE! time.  

Tom concludes, “Most people in the world don’t get the opportunity to do what we do. They especially don’t get the opportunity many times. That shit aint lost on nobody. The gift covid gave me was Jim and I got to spend the bulk of 2020 together, living together again at the farm. We didn’t have significant others at that time. It was me and Jim. We got to be brothers again in a way you really only get to be brothers when you’re kids. We had no responsibility. We didn’t have to go to work. We had nothing to do, so we just got to be brothers. Like when we were kids. We’d sit around and smoke weed. We’d meet up in the afternoon, play guitar, walk the property or hit golf balls. We were like hey do you want to do this or hey do you want to do that. We got a second chance at being kids again. I don’t have the words to express how important that is to me. It’s like we’re all getting a bit of a mulligan.” 

Dedicated to Ron Colagreco  

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

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

July 14, 2023
Marty Halpern

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?   

Tom and Jim Hamilton Playing In the Sand 2023

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 BEGINNING 

Homegrown Whiteboy Blues Band

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.” 

Tom Hamilton Jr.

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.” 

Future Presence Mark Thornton (drums) Tom Hamilton (guitar)

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.” 

Future Presence Blarney Stone Philly 1994 Jesse Weber (bass) Jim Hamilton (guitar)

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.” 

8-17-99 Brothers Past Left to Right: Tom Hamilton, Joe D’Amico, Jim Hamilton

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

Circles Around the Sun Finally Speaking the Same “Language” Since Neal Casal’s Passing: Part 2 

June 2, 2023
Marty Halpern

Circles Around the Sun’s (CATS) fourth album “Language” officially completes the changing of the guard on guitar for the band. John Lee Shannon has cemented himself as the replacement for CATS founder Neal Casal giving the band a consistent sound and direction after eight years of chaos and uncertainty that would have sunk any project, musical or otherwise. 

Shannon sparkles as he continues the cosmic disco groove the band created in their 2020 self-titled release. CATS initially turned to jam band heavyweights Eric Krasno and then Scott Metzger to fill in for Casal after his passing in 2019. Both musicians left their unique stamp on the band’s sound in their brief time and kept CATS moving forward. With two seemingly ideal replacements for Casal, scheduling and an unprecedented global pandemic created two immovable roadblocks that would end both musicians’ journey before they had a chance to get started. 

Those are just two roadblocks that have caused CATS to stop and start multiple times since their formation in 2015. Ironically, after all the roadblocks, wrong turns, or dead ends, Shannon was Casal’s choice to replace him from the start. According to keyboardist Adam MacDougall, Casal let it be known he wanted Shannon as his replacement in a note he left for the band before his passing.  

In Part 2 of Slide&Banjo’s in depth interview with MacDougall, he reflects on the early days of CATS with Casal and how they were able to trampoline into the middle of the jam band universe. “It’s amazing considering we didn’t tour much for most of our career. Neal and I were in Chris Robinson Brotherhood and that band stayed on the road a lot. We didn’t have time to tour with CATS. We were super lucky that hundreds of thousands of people were listening to the Fare Thee Well shows. We had a huge leg up and the band couldn’t have existed without that. We could tour nationally without having to make a name for ourselves. We could get a couple of hundred people into a club in the middle of the country without any real legwork. We had been a band for two years before we played ten shows. It wasn’t until right before Neal passed, we started taking it seriously.” 

MacDougall continues, “The beginning was literally a bunch of guys who had never played together in a room trying to find a couple of chord changes we can bop around on for the next 15 minutes. We never did that again. The second record was more composed. We had a lot of ideas from touring after the first record. We were coming up with lots of stuff from soundchecks. A lot of the jams from the first record were turning into things. We were like this jam section is totally new. It’s not on the first record. We can make a new song out of this. That’s how the second record happened.” 

As the band buckled down and hit the road, their future was literally traveling in the same van. “That’s how we met John.” MacDougall remembers. “That’s why it took me a while to see how he can do what he’s doing in CATS. John and (current Grateful Shred guitarist) Zeph Ohora came on tour with us. I had only known John playing acoustic. They opened for CATS. After every show he would sit there and play this nylon string guitar for hours. Neal would sit there and drool on that shit he couldn’t do.” 

With two albums and several tours of their trippy take on the Grateful Dead, CATS met up with drummer Joe Russo in the studio. The resulting 2019 EP “Circles Around the Sun Meets Joe Russo” (Royal Potato Family) was a dramatic departure from the extended spacy jams the band had been creating. Instead, the improvised studio session created a tight, super fast paced sound the band had never approached before. It was an eye opener. CATS was way more than a one trick pony only capable of trippy “Interludes for the Dead.”  

MacDougall points directly at Russo for getting the most out of everyone during those sessions. “That was all Russo. We were trying to get it going in the studio. Nothing was happening and it was lame. We were listening to stuff in the control room. Russo gets up and goes “C’mon guys, fuck this shit.” He riled us up. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” And that’s when it happened. He got frustrated with us being, is this cool or is that cool. He was like, “Fuck you guys, let’s go play.” He was so aggressive about playing, we all fell right in. He literally yelled at us and all the stuff we used on the record happened after that.”

Casal passed in August 2019 at the same time this EP was released. Unfortunately causing one of CATS best musical efforts to go unnoticed as the music world mourned the loss of one of its most well respected ambassadors.  

If not for a note Casal left for the band expressing his desire for CATS to continue, things would have shut down right here. The band that was never meant to be a band had a good run. They created their own genre of music. Rode its wave for a bit.  Now they could go back to their pre-CATS musical ventures.  But Neal’s instructions were clear, and MacDougall, Dan Horne, and Mark Levy were set on finding a replacement and fulfilling one of Casal’s last wishes. 

The trio first turned to Eric Krasno to cover the tour dates they had on the books. As the calendar moved into 2020, Scott Metzger took over on guitar. CATS third life set out on a winter tour filled with great music and a great atmosphere each night. With Metzger on board, the founding members were sure they had found Casal’s replacement. They could fulfill his wish and keep CATS rolling. 

Just when life looked like easy street for the revamped band, Covid stepped in, and the world along with CATS latest version shut down. It wasn’t lost on MacDougall at that time how the band’s sound was constantly changing as frequently as the lineup. “The band is completely different depending on who the guitar player is. As tragic as the Neal departure is, it’s an interesting experiment to see what happens to three players of a four-piece band when you keep interchanging the fourth member. We were a completely different band when we played with Eric Krasno. We did a couple of tours with him. Then we got Metzger, and it was a completely different band with Metzger than we were with Neal or Kras. The Metzger thing was cool. It was New Yorkey and hip and out there. It was way more intelligent. It felt like we were in a snazzy sports car with Metzger. It was super fun to play with him.” 

While the world lived in social distance mode, the Scott Metzger version of the band hit the studio in New York. The first time without their founder and leader Casal.  MacDougall recalls these sessions that created enough material for an album but has never seen the light of day. “We had Metzger in for a New York session. He’s hot at New York sessions. It was great stuff. We had a day in the studio. Scott was like, “Cool. I’ll do all my overdubs.” He’d do one and was like “Next song, let’s go. Next song.” I was like, I just want to roll a joint and take a break. He was “No, next. Let’s go.” It was really cool. We had started a record with him. A bunch of ideas we came up with him.  We got together for a couple of days and just played. We came up with riffs and motifs. Then we got together again later in the same place and recorded some basics. It was way looser obviously than what we just released. The band at that point was looking to do something more like the first record which was literally jamming in the room. Then going back and doing some overdubs. Sadly, the scheduling thing didn’t work out. JRAD took up too much of Scott’s time. When Scott left, we had to ditch things. We were trying to do something more open and rawer with Scott. So somewhere out there are some cool recordings.” 

With Metzger no longer available, CATS turned to Shannon, the same guy who amazed Casal in the tour van years earlier to take the helm at guitar. The results instantly justified Casal’s faith in his protégé. The band’s cosmic disco sound is Shannon’s sweet spot. This was obvious when CATS fourth life toured to support 2020’s “Circles Around the Sun.” Shannon cannonballed into the CATS pool meshing perfectly with the band and the disco sound they were focused on.  

MacDougall says Shannon’s passion has opened his own ears and created several musical roads he wants to explore. “John has a huge fascination with disco. I only scratch the surface on it. He gets deep in that shit. I’ve been getting more obsessed with percussion. We played all our own percussion on the record. I’d love to add a percussionist to the band.” He adds, “With Metzger, that version of CATS may appeal to people who like Bill Frissell. That’s gone. We’re embracing that disco sound and I’m really into that. I’m coming back to the stuff I did when I was a kid in high school. I wanted to be in a band like Funkadelic. I wanted to make people dance all night and have fun doing it. So, I’m back to it after a 30-year run of trying all kinds of other things. Just trying to get people in a club to dance.”    

As the latest version of CATS ventures into a world without Casal’s musical contributions, his presence in the band is everlasting. “Neal is always on my mind.” MacDougall reflects. “We’re still using his gear. We have his pedals and amps. It’s there. John and Neal were real buddies. He really looked up to John immensely. He was producing records John was playing on and his greatness was tripping him out.”  

MacDougall has a clear vision for the future. “My dream with CATS, is the same I had with Neal. I really thought it would happen and hope it still does. We opened for Greensky Bluegrass in 2017 or ‘18. We got to play the Beacon in New York. I’m from New York and went to high school there. The Beacon is one of my spots. It’s beautiful and sounds good. This was a time when CATS had a bunch of wind under our sails. It was about a year before Neal passed. I was sitting there thinking we should be headlining this place, not opening. I think we were in a place where that could happen in a couple of years. Then everything crumbled. It would be a dream to headline that place.” 

He concludes, “The rhythm stuff John brings in is a big move for me. I like the same stuff. Focusing on the rhythm not the leads. It’s hard to do that with a band with no vocals. We’d love to see more people come out. In a perfect world, it would be like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” A place where people feel comfortable wearing weird shit. Doing whatever the fuck they want. It’s a dance. Take whatever you want to take. Wear whatever you want to wear. Hang out with who you want to hang out with and boogie. There are no heavy themes. Nothing political. Get sparkly. Have a good time. No shame. No guilt. That’s us.” 

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.

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JRAD Strengthens Its Roots

March 4, 2020
Marty Halpern

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead kicked off their 2020 touring schedule with a three-night sold out run at Port Chester, NY’s The Capitol Theatre from February 21-23. The band instantly picked up where they left off in 2019, as the energy the quintet created every night was palpable. While the focus of the weekend was on the band’s continued musical growth, what the weekend really proved was they are expanding their base, and the fans have no problem with it. 

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