By: Aaron Stein - @neddyo
This originally appeared in Aaron's excellent weekly newsletter Noted:: Nedsday. Sign up here.
So... you may have noticed that I seriously dig on the Almost Dead thing.
I'm certainly not alone, almost everyone that sees them is rightfully blown away. But, there are a nontrivial number of folk that are basically flummoxed with the whole thing. Their main argument being: "all this for a cover band?!" It's not really a complaint, but another common thing I hear is, "why don't they just write their own material?!"
In fact, it seems like JRAD has caused some sort of weird crisis in a certain crowd.
Look, I get it. After fifteen JRAD shows, including six in the past three months alone, I sometimes feel a little weird getting so excited about these guys. But then again, I think I've got good reason to feel the way I do.
First and foremost, the music is pretty amazing. Subtract out the actual songs they are playing and they are a seriously amazing band.
The improv is very high level, the interplay is up there with the best of them and the energy is off-the-charts. This past weekend over the course of there nights of shows at Brooklyn Bowl, I've come upon the best comparison I can think of: Keith Jarrett.
One of the greatest piano trios in modern history was the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio. As the name implies, they played jazz standards nearly exclusively. Also, in their live shows, sometimes these standards became 20+ minute improvisations that were completely unreal and as "jammy" as anything I've heard in that medium. On live albums they were listed as "originals" but they were just pure live improv and they put out at least one amazing album that was just some of these improvisations.
They played Carnegie Hall and the like. They were the best at what they did and the only ones that did it. Were they any less of a band because they played Rodgers & Hart songs? That's how I feel about JRAD: they are essentially playing "standards." Sure, they could play their own songs, but the thing about jambands is, most of their songs usually suck -- and JRAD is most certainly a jamband. Why not just stick with the "standards?" You're not going to improve on the material of the Grateful Dead.
And the thing about that material is that very few of us were around to see it played with anything near the energy that JRAD plays it. Yes, you can listen to a show from '69 and appreciate it at a very high level and imagine what it would have been like to have been there watching the manic, psychedelic energy go down. But unfortunately we can't experience it.
And live music is live music for a reason: it's meant to be experienced live.
Likewise, we can listen to shows from the 70's and feel the energy in the crowd, the band literally telling the audience to take a step back because they're genuinely concerned that things are getting out of control. But we'll never be in a room like that.
In some small way, JRAD is able to bring this material with that energy and whip the crowd into that kind of frenzy. The Dead of the 90s had their moments, sure, and you can get plenty of amazing things out of the tapes. But the way the crowd surfed the wave of energy on songs like St. Stephen this past weekend was tremendous. I can think of only one or two bands that have ever made me feel that way.
Finally, you have the guys in the band themselves.
Personally, I have seen all of them play together for well over a decade. I've seen them in their own bands, supporting one another, backing other people separately and together in just about every combination possible. I've seen them play to empty rooms and packed clubs.
If you had told me 10 years ago that all that playing was leading to a band that plays the Grateful Dead catalog, I would have thought you were nuts. But in retrospect it really does seem like that was it was building towards at least something like that.
It's the perfect medium for their skills: the chance to improvise without a net, the chance to be jazzy and funky and twangy and, most importantly, a vehicle to steamroll a crowd of willing victims with an intensity and an energy that few bands can match... certainly few that have played these songs.
Not to mention: I truly like these guys. I've made a lifelong point not to become friendly with any musicians, but seeing them for so long, especially Joe and Scott... well, I consider them friends and there's nothing quite like seeing guys you care about do something so well and make you and (almost) everybody else so happy.
It won't last forever, but it's a helluva lot of fun while its lasting. So yes, I'm that excited about a cover band.