Interview: Joe Russo Discusses JRAD At Westville Music Bowl, LOCKN’ Mini Festival & More

Interview: Joe Russo Discusses JRAD At Westville Music Bowl, LOCKN’ Mini Festival & More

Drummer Joe Russo is in a good place these days. Russo couldn’t be happier to be performing in front of audiences again and to have his creative spark reignited. This weekend Joe Russo’s Almost Dead takes the stage at Westville Music Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut for the band’s seventh and eighth shows at the venue since Memorial Day Weekend. The band consisting of Russo, keyboardist Marco Benevento, bassist Dave Dreiwitz and guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger will display their massive repertoire with the promise of not repeating any songs played previously at Westville Music Bowl.

JRAD is not just a band for Russo, it’s a collection of his four best friends — four friends he desperately missed collaborating with over the start of the pandemic. The members of the group performed together in various configurations for well over a decade before coming together for what was supposed to be a one-time-only concert from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at Brooklyn Bowl in 2013.

Russo and his mates realized their particular brand of improvising in which they use Grateful Dead songs as “guideposts” resonated deeply with jam fans. The quintet now has 225 shows under their belts and are gearing up to hit the road in August for their first shows outside the Northeast since Fall 2019 following a mini-festival of their own at the LOCKN’ Farm in Arrington, Virginia August 13 – 15 and this weekend’s concerts in New Haven.

Russo recently spoke with JamBase via video chat. Joe discussed the silver lining for him of time off the road, why Westville Music Bowl is the perfect venue for JRAD, putting the lineup together for the LOCKN’ mini-festival and much more. Here’s our talk with Joe Russo:

JamBase: I’ve listened to a few interviews that you did with Drummers Resource and with [Eric Krasno], and I know the pandemic was particularly tough for you on the creative side as you lived at your in-laws while work was being done on your new home and you didn’t record much. Was there anything good that came out of all of that time at home and off the road due to the pandemic?

Joe Russo: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean the time spent with family I think is going to be the number one answer for any musician you ask that question. Our lives are often so enveloped by travel. We have this amazing job and we get to do these incredible things, but it does take you away from home and it takes you away from experiences. The fact that I got to be with my daughters for the last year and a half and, and really witness their growth over this time and to be able to experience that with my family. My wife and I being there to see literally our youngest daughter start eating solid foods through now just being rip shit crazy and running around the house. It’s incredible. And there, there are things that just wouldn’t happen.

I try to pad my calendar as much as I can to have time for that stuff, but you can never be there for everything. And we got to be there for everything. While that comes with its own challenges, I certainly thought I was going to spend more time working on music and writing music. And I didn’t have the inspiration. I’m lucky that I have a small space in my home to work and I did some recording with Fruit Bats that was awesome. I did some stuff with Cass McCombs, and that’s amazing. But anytime I had to sit down and try to work on stuff, I was just like, yeah, I’m not quite there yet.

And of course losing that ability to really collaborate with someone in real-time, I realized that was really hard and I had a great, great conversation with Mark Guiliana maybe six months or so ago about how there are certain musicians who are far more comfortable in the studio and are psyched that they don’t have to go on the road or don’t have to play live.

And then there’s other musicians who maybe err on the side of that live energy and reactivity and conversation in-the-moment thing. And that just wasn’t possible to do. And that, for me, was the hardest thing. You can’t flex that muscle or scratch that itch when the ability to be within proximity of other humans is off the table.

JamBase: You’ve always been a guy that’s played a lot of smaller gigs with your various projects. Do you think that with the move to New Jersey, there’ll be less of that because you’re not as close to New York City?

Joe Russo: No. No, I don’t think so at all. Once things really get back to normal —part of the reason we moved here, it’s kind of equal distance between Philadelphia and Brooklyn. And if anything, I’m hoping to do more things in Philly and New York, and have JRAD be the thing that tours and have an opportunity to kind of spread my wings into even more projects and more opportunities between those places for sure.

JamBase: Excellent. Now let’s get into JRAD. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been at that first show, which is now unbelievably eight years ago.

Joe Russo: I think you were the one that made us think it was good that night. I think you ran a review. We walked off that stage, we were going to play one time and we just had fun and that was the goal.

And we kind of walked off and we’re like, “maybe people like that?” It was hard to read the vibes, to be honest, that night in the crowd. And you put out a beautiful article. And then all of a sudden people started circulating the recording of the night and it was like, wait, what? People like that?

That’s what this thing is. We’re certainly a Grateful Dead cover band. We play Grateful Dead covers, but we treat it as a songbook that we can borrow from, like you would the real book or any jazz standard or anything like that.

You hit the mile markers that make the song, the song, and then you take liberties wherever you can, but that’s already built in by the Grateful Dead. That’s the funny thing for me, that at the center of the Grateful Dead, in my opinion, was pure creation in the moment. So, applying that attitude to it in real form I think is the only way to do it. Just taking liberties is the general thing I take away from the Dead.

So that’s kind of all we do. We just take extra liberties. We take liberties as if it was our stuff, I guess — it’s certainly not. But anything we play we treat the same way. We’ve all been in each other’s bands for decades now. Every single one of us has been in each other’s bands.

Everybody in this band has been a band leader and had us be their thing. It’s such a deeply steeped brew at this point, where people know us more, obviously because of the JRAD thing and the Grateful Dead catalog, but this is the approach we just take to the music that we play, especially when we play together. It just ended up being this really lovely blend of our intention and these songs that, I don’t know, just turned into this very lucky accidental thing.

JamBase: Westville Music Bowl in New Haven has become a home venue of sorts for JRAD in 2021. What are your thoughts on the venue?

Joe Russo: It’s amazing. The way that went down really was, Peter Costello and I, Peter, who co-manages the band with me — Everything gets shut down, everything gets canceled. You’re trying to get things back on line and people are making you offers to do all sorts of stuff. There are a lot of bands that found ways of playing and I think that’s amazing be it the drive-in shows and this and that. We just didn’t feel comfortable doing that stuff. Westville came down the line and it checked all the boxes. It was the first thing that I was like, ‘yeah, we can do this, we can do this gig.’ Because these gigs were booked before we had a new president, these gigs were booked before vaccination was a reality. And we were trying to find a way to do things where the audience would be as safe as possible: we’re outside, socially distance pods, masks at the time.

The band was safe. Every single person in the band could drive to the gig, drive home if they wanted to, if they didn’t feel comfortable staying in a hotel. Those were the boxes that needed to be checked before we can come back and they did that, and they did such a fantastic job. And we realized like, shit, man, this might be the only place we can play with our list of must-haves for safety.Again, many many months ago. And we were like, well, let’s just set up camp here. Let’s see what we can do. They were gracious and so helpful and wonderful and worked with us on establishing that idea of setting up a pseudo-residency. Because at that point, these might’ve been the only nine shows we were going to play this year.

We weren’t sure what was going down. We weren’t sure that we were going to play anything other. The fact that we’ve already played a festival since then was not an option. So yeah, now it’s become such a special place for us. The return to live music for us, the return to our collaboration, the return to seeing the fans out front and having that energy exchange. I will never forget my first gig back after this thing, and it was there. [Westville Music Bowl booker] Dave Niedbalski up there has done such an amazing job curating that thing. They opened up a venue during a pandemic. That made people feel OK about being there and it gave people a place to feel as safe as they could feel.

Luckily, things have for the most part trended toward better. Things are opening up and people are feeling better about going out. He’s built a scene up there that, no pun intended, it was a safe haven, especially for people in the genre we play. It’s awesome. I hope they have continued success in the future world when hopefully everything’s just hunky-dory again. Because it’s a fantastic place. Everybody that works there is outstanding and it’s been an absolute pleasure getting back on line there.

JamBase: Amen to that. The first three shows took place over Memorial Day Weekend and coming into it, it had been 15 months since you had played in front of an audience. I know it’s generally you that puts together the setlist. How did you go about that with the book wide open? Do you recall how you went about it? Did you put the set together for the run or individual nights?Can you share anything about how those setlists came together?

Joe Russo: I originally wrote nine nights all in one shot. The effort to be no repeats and all that. Just trying to make each show special and different. There was kind of a beautiful thing about not playing after 15 months, it’s just like “All right, well, let’s play all these songs.” Nothing’s been overplayed at this point. It was kind of just doing the normal thing of what I would like to hear if I were going to the concert and took that approach. I know we have two more coming up that I’m really excited about. And then another one in September. Just kind of business as usual. Just trying to build shows in a way to make people happy and to keep us excited and keep us inspired.

JamBase: How did it feel when you kicked into the “Not Fade Away” opener that first night?

Joe Russo: It was pretty amazing. There were a lot of amazing moments that first night. It’s funny because it had been like 90 degrees every day until we hit the stage. It’s like 50 and pouring and oh man, I felt so bad for everybody out there that weekend. In my mind, the “triumphant return to walk on stage” and the place is packed and it’s like, “oh my God, here we go.”

And you make your way on stage where it’s dumping outside and there’s people kind of huddled in the corners avoiding the rain. And at first I was like, “oh, ok, cool, here we go.” Then it ended up being kind of the perfect thing because the weekend became this beautiful arc, much like you want a concert to be. By that third night, everybody showed up in rain gear and was ready to battle the elements. That night to me, that third night felt like I was back in the matrix as if we hadn’t stopped.

There are certain nights when you’re playing music — and that place that you always hope to be is where you’re not involved and you’re almost watching it from a distance. You can do no wrong as a unit, and everybody’s reading each other’s thoughts and your own mechanics and playing feels effortless. That’s what happened on that third night for me. But I think the thing that always stands out that hit me the hardest emotionally was during soundcheck where we’re up on stage and at that point it was still a beautiful day. My eldest daughter and Pete Costello’s eldest daughter were running around the seats, holding hands, laughing. Costello walks up to the front and we catch eyes and we both just start crying.

JamBase: There are three shows left in New Haven — two this weekend and then another on September 4. You had mentioned earlier that you started by putting the setlists together for the nine nights. Do you still have that as the guideline for what’s coming in the three nights that are left?

Joe Russo: We had to steal some stuff from some other nights. I think we have two more of no repeats, and then I think that final night is just going to be a celebration of everything we’ve done, to be honest, and really just put a bow on it and kind of thank everyone for coming out and supporting us and being there for this whole thing. It’s been wild and it is crazy to have played this place so many times.

JamBase: JRAD will headline a mini-festival at the home of the LOCKN’ Festival in Arrington, Virginia August 13 – 15. How did that come together?

Joe Russo: Basically, it was presented to me as: LOCKN’ the festival is not happening but LOCKN Farm the venue is, would you like to come play? Absolutely. So we booked our three nights as just JRAD. I definitely didn’t want it to be a festival. I didn’t want to curate a festival. We’ve turned down opportunities to host our own festival dozens of times. It’s just something I’m not interested in. But we did have the opportunity to bring some friends along. And that was exciting to me: well, who do you want to get? I want to get The Slip! I want to get this amazing band who are such great friends and such inspired musicians. Let’s see if they’ll do it. And then it’d be fun to do something after — what should we do? Let’s get John Medeski and Billy Martin to host a jam session in the fucking forest.

Stuff like that excites me and it’s all rooted in a pretty deep history between those nine humans between the guys and JRAD, The Slip guys and John and Billy, the Venn Diagram is so robust. When I was thinking about adding anything to these nights, it was like, let’s not have it be this smattering of artists to cover every feeling of music. It was more like let’s have improvisation and collaboration be the centerpiece of this weekend and how we can establish that through three different entities who will be playing three wildly different types of music. While also having a built-in platform for all of us to collaborate. That, that made me really excited. As a drummer, being with Andrew [Barr] and Billy

JamBase: Those three drummers, I mean, that’s insane.

Joe Russo: I mean, both of them are absolute heroes of mine. Then you spread it out a tiny bit and all of a sudden, Marc [Friedman] and Brad [Barr] and John and the possibilities of collaboration are really exciting.And that just felt like the initial spirit to the LOCKN’ Festival when it was that, it was this kind of inter interwoven collaborative spirit. So I wanted to do that on kind of a micro-level with people that we know, and we love.

JamBase: Will the late-night sets in the forest be completely improvised?

Joe Russo: Oh, you betcha. I just had a great talk with Billy and Andrew and, just discussing that all these different things throughout our history and all these things, all these nights of playing music built from zero. It’s really great to get to do that in any space, but to get to do that there, in the forest and outside and in the trees and at midnight is its own special accompaniment.

I think the whole site is so gorgeous. Even when we were going to go last year — we were going to film on-site at LOCKN’, JRAD, and then weather and all sorts of crazy shit started happening in there — I was so excited to go play for no one at that place, on that land. We were like, “how good is it gonna feel to stare at that, that backdrop and, and be with your friends and make music?” So this is just the ultimate version of that.

I’m realizing as we’re talking about it, (it was) kind of just something that finally came to fruition in a really special family-based way with the people that are involved, and I couldn’t be more excited.

JamBase: Another really exciting element of the mini-festival at LOCKN is a pair of “Other Shit” sets of non-Grateful Dead material. Have you given much thought yet to what those setlists will look like?

Joe Russo: What said “shit” will be? Yeah we have some ideas, we have some concepts and again, just wanting to take the opportunity — if we’re going to be in a place together for three days and we kind of get to do whatever the hell we want, let’s do whatever the hell we want to build in some extra excitement for us and hopefully everyone else that’s there.

And then we’re also going to do an acoustic set in the forest during the day on Sunday. Because you know what’s going to feel good is an acoustic set in the forest on Sunday. As this thing kept approaching and ideas had to come to fruition, it was just like, well, let’s do this, let’s try this.

JamBase: Can fans expect “Other Shit” beyond the non-Grateful Dead material that has been played by JRAD in the past?

Joe Russo: We will not be playing anything we’ve ever played in front of people.

JamBase: That is huge. That is great news and I’m sure fans will be very excited for that.

Joe Russo: I’m excited for it. Yeah. Totally.

JamBase: Joe, a couple of years ago, you mentioned that you were having issues with your shoulder.How’s your shoulder doing these days?

Joe Russo: [The] shoulder is awesome. Thank you for asking. I did a lengthy interview a couple of years back where that was a big part of it. I went through two or three years of my shoulder just being in absolutely excruciating pain, getting to the point of getting something called frozen shoulder where you can’t lift your arm.

When I was playing, I would essentially play with my elbow almost seared to my rib cage and just had the ability to move my right hand only so much without being in excruciating pain. What began as something that was deemed a physical ailment through traditional doctors and whatnot ended up being solved by getting hip to a doctor called John Sarno, who deals with mind-body connectivity and all this stuff.

Shit, man, I can’t possibly crack open all this stuff, but I think it was a combination of stress and old stuff from my life I hadn’t dealt with and, and whatnot. And literally got solved through taking this different kind of psychedelic approach.

JamBase: Finally, Joe, what’s in store for you outside of JRAD this year and beyond?

Joe Russo: So, so much. The big thing that’s on my brain right now is the Bogie Band, which is a new outfit that got to play a show with before the pandemic hit and is really now coming out.

We have a new record coming out early next year. We’re about to play the Newport Jazz Festival the day after our next Westville shows. So it goes JRAD [July] 30, 31 at Westville and then we pop up to Newport to do that. Bogie Band will be there. Then immediately after that, Marco and I are playing with Christian McBride and John Scofield and that’ll be a hoot.

JamBase: They had a funny name for that …

Joe Russo: Jam Jawn. Christian is a Philadelphia gentleman. We had an amazing time playing with Christian and Mikaela Davis at Levon Helm’s barn a month or so ago for the Mockingbird Foundation, they did their big online celebration. It was another thing — we just improvised for an hour and we had a blast and then Christian had made an inquiry if we would want to do it [in Newport] and we’re like, “absolutely.” He’s such a fantastic guy and Scofield is amazing and I haven’t seen him in so long. So, really looking forward to that. I spoke to Simon Posford about a week or so ago. He and I had a duo that was about to start before everything went down. We did a surprise pop-up gig in Brooklyn. I think it was either December or January. [I would] really like to see that get back online.

[I also] had plans on doing some shows with my own material from my phér•bŏney record. I’d like to see that happen and get back to writing. I’d love to do some playing with Cass McCombs, we’ve talked about doing some tours or some gigs together.

Pirata with Dave Harrington, Spencer Zahn and Stuart [Bogie] and Jonathan Goldberger. Yeah, there’s so many things I’m excited about and so many things to get back online. I’m doing a great run with Chris Harford & the Band of Changes coming the first week or the second week of August. We’re going to be playing at Industry City in Brooklyn for Hometown Bar-B-Que [on August 6]. We’re [then] going to play in Stanhope, New Jersey at the Stanhope House [on August 7]. And that’s going to be both lineups: myself, Chris and Scott Metzger with Dave Dreiwitz on bass for the first one and the second one is with Matt Kohut, also of Ween fame, on bass. Just so many things. I’m so excited to feel like it’s all cracking open again and we can get back to creating and making the stuff.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.