If the efforts of the typical cover band can be likened to the creative equivalent of playing checkers in the park, Joe Russo's Almost Dead is engaged in some three-dimensional chess. On a moving spaceship.
Working with the catalog of the Grateful Dead, the trick isn't simply to execute the songs cleanly, or even to inject them with jams that dutifully recall the sound of their parent band. Nor is it only a matter of navigating the decades of lore and custom that have ossified some of these songs into typecast roles.
On a good day a Grateful Dead cover band, as it were, would do all of the above while also expressing its own original voice — channeling the spirit of the music without merely offering a paint-by-numbers portrait of some collective fantasy about “the ’60s,” or a funhouse mirror version of the Dead's later years, when seemingly every fifth lyric had become a nostalgic applause-line for fans to cheer what a song represents rather than what it actually sounds like.
Russo's band has its share of good days.
This group is a part-time project that keeps gaining steam; Friday’s lengthy, sold-out show at the Paradise was the second of its first proper tour. Its heart is the rhythm section — drummer Russo, his old duo partner Marco Benevento on keyboards (Wurlitzer, mainly), and durable bassist Dave Dreiwitz, best known from Ween. When Russo and Benevento fed off each other most obviously, as during a euphoric “Uncle John’s Band” and a swinging “Terrapin Station” suite, it was like they scratched their initials deeply into a revered edifice.
Scott Metzger was an unobtrusive presence on rhythm guitar. Tom Hamilton offered Garcian, spider-web guitar riffs; his respectful lead vocals coasted by on stoned gravitas, but tunes like “Bird Song” left him overmatched.
There’s sometimes a sense of the group playing Mr. Potato Head with Dead tropes, and the first set leaned on colorless shifts into louder-faster mode. But this band segues from song to song with more facility than any group I’ve heard — a thrilling pirouette into “Playing in the Band” was a highlight —and the second set was an uninterrupted suite of varying moods and thoughtful turns.
On earlier gigs (including a New Year’s Eve show with real-live Dead bassist Phil Lesh on board), this group struggled at times to color outside the tie-dyed lines. This show offers fresh evidence that it can indeed sing a song of its own.