“We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”

-Jerry Garcia, late frontman of the Grateful Dead

From Instagram celebrities playing rockstar at the front of mediocre EDM cover acts (see: the Fat Jew’s Major Behavior) to the roadie-looking old dudes who play Led Zeppelin and sell acid out of the back of their beat up white vans, cover bands travel a tough road. Found in beach bars and  frat parties, cover bands are generally relegated to a permanent C-list status.

However, a whole lot of folks were smelling what Joe Russo’s Almost Dead stepped in at Brooklyn Bowl last week. And it smelled good. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, known as JRAD, is the pre-eminent Grateful Dead cover band. JRAD just sold out six nights in a row at Brooklyn Bowl, the venue where the band got its start nearly a decade ago. Your faithful correspondent rounded up free tickets, but otherwise tickets were re-selling at over a hundred bucks a night. Whether or not you consider JRAD the greatest cover band of all time likely depends on whether or not you’re a Deadhead. Disclaimer: I’m a Deadhead. However, I respect that – as the late god Jerry Garcia noted in the above quote – twenty-minute spacey jams are not everyone’s string of licorice. However, the notion of a cover band enjoying such sought after rockstar status is a strange enough phenomena in itself to warrant a closer look.

With eponymous frontman Joe Russo on Drums, Marco Benevento on keyboard, bassist Dave Dreiwitz, plus Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton on guitars, JRAD has impeccable credentials within the Dead Community: most of the band members played with Furthur and Ratdog, the bands fronted by Grateful Dead member Bob Weir in the years between Jerry Garcia’s death and the Grateful Dead’s revival as Dead and Co. Some members played in Dark Star Orchestra, the former number one Grateful Dead cover band. The band members likely know the Grateful Dead’s music as well as the Grateful Dead does.  

Unlike Dark Star Orchestra, which recreates entire Grateful Dead shows note-for-note, JRAD puts their own aesthetic twist on the music. They have a harder rocking sound than the Dead and follow different tease and jam structures. They are impeccable improvisational musicians, and it came through at their Thursday night show. JRAD performed white-hot renditions of “Jack Straw,” “Throwing Stones,” and “West LA Fadeaway,” which means exactly nothing to the non-Deadheads out there. A less esoteric testament to their handling of the Dead’s catalogue came on Friday night, when rock god John Mayer (of long time solo and more recent Dead and Company fame) joined JRAD for a face-melting second set.  

But again, the last two paragraphs traffic in the kind of cult-like knowledge the Grateful Dead community is known for. Favorite versions of favorite songs, favorite band members, favorite notes, favorite lyrical snippets and nuggets of cryptic wisdom. In short, if you’re a Deadhead, you are almost certainly going to like Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.  

Thus, JRAD’s popularity becomes a question about the Grateful Dead’s mythic allure:  what inspires such devotion to a fifty-year old rock band whose catalogue plays like a soundtrack to a bygone era?

Nostalgia, perhaps, for the psychedelic optimism of the sixties. Perhaps the come-as-you-are hippie vibes put down by the Grateful Dead both fifty years ago and today are intellectually appealing in times as politically uncertain as the present. However, I argue that what drives people to the Dead and overflows into JRAD fan-hood, is something described in Granville Ganter’s academic essay “Tuning In Together: Daniel Webster, Alfred Schultz, and the Grateful Dead.” In great detail, Granville describes the experience of listening to the Grateful Dead as “a powerful example of the reciprocal creation of an artistic event among audience and performer,” hinging on the music’s psychedelic “self-referentiality.” Granville essentially argues that Deadheads listen to the Dead for a type of transcendental experience. Deadheads would likely nod and shrug with a twinkle in their eye if you asked them about this. Non-deadheads would smirk and say ‘Sure.’ Granville, in his essay, acknowledges both the essential subjectivity of the Dead experience and the empirically widespread reporting of this strange “intersubjectivity.”

For a less abstract explanation of the experience, look to John Mayer’s recent quote in Rolling Stone: “‘Scarlet Begonias’” is the epitome of a jam, and it just lifts you. We live in a world where there’s the comedy mask and the tragedy mask. It’s either good or bad. You’re either having a good day or a bad day. But then Grateful Dead music comes in, and it’s this other mask. It’s a third mask. If you get in a fight with a girl, you could either put on something that’s going to make you feel cheery, or you could put on Grateful Dead music, which takes you to a completely different place and it does something that doesn’t just cheer you up. It inspires you, and it soothes you in some way that it’s almost like hanging out in a biker gang of imaginary friends. It’s the gift of my life, to be able to play that music with that band.”

This is not so say that the ineffable quality of the Grateful Dead is or is not valid. That is likely impossible to approach with any kind of objectivity. This merely just to say that the Dead’s esoteric aspect is a powerful enough draw to get a guitar legend like John Mayer speaking borderline religiously about the music. It doesn’t seem to matter to Deadheads whether this ineffable quality is real or not; it keeps the faithful coming back regardless. JRAD’s rare understanding of the Dead’s psychedelic wizardry is, in this humble writer’s opinion, the only reason a cover band sold out Brooklyn Bowl six nights straight. Joe Russo and the gang are masters of a strange musical alchemy that refuses to get old.