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.
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.”
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