Photos by Steve Rood
The rumors circulated steadily before the second sold-out night of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s two-show stand at the Wiltern: John Mayer would make an appearance. The Dead and Co. guitarist did, indeed, perform, sitting in with the quintet for the entirety of the second set and encore. Yet, as further authentication of JRAD’s ascension to jamband of the moment, Mayer’s contribution was only a part of the story.
JRAD’s previous Los Angeles appearance was a single night at the Teragram Ballroom and its capacity of 600. The Wiltern holds three times as much. Now, double that number accounting for the previous night’s show and it’s clear the band’s star is on the rise in the City of Angels. The group met that fervent anticipation with an opening set that coalesced out of a spacey tumble into “Crazy Fingers,” lifted by a climatic “The Other One” jam, then rolled onto island time for an “Estimated Prophet” that emphasized the underlying reggae tilt to the fullest.
The easy grooves leaked into the countrified folk of “Peggy-O” as guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger established an equitable pattern of trade-offs; Hamilton singing songs previously captained by Jerry Garcia and Metzger holding down Bob Weir’s parts. As for the solos, both guitarists more than shined, with a consistent duality within their playing that shed titles like “lead guitarist” for a greater collective, conversational tact. These two have developed exceptional “ears” for each other, leaving ample space for their creative expressions.
So, when the five dived into Garcia’s “Cats Under the Stars,” to a huge ovation, it was not surprising that both six-stringers ceded their spotlight to the equal impressive Marco Benevento at the keyboard for one of the evening’s improvisational festivals of bliss. And, if the compliments are to be passed out, really it has to start with the band’s namesake. Russo, with his kit center stage, is the combustion that propels this engine, establishing a driving energy and holding it there unfailingly throughout. The smooth and affecting segue into the set-closing “Feel Like A Stranger” just more proof of how tightly Russo has the ship running.
The second half did, as suspected, expand the lineup by one, as Mayer plugged in for “The Wheel.” What was most interesting about the headband-wearing guitarist, introduced as “Instagram’s John Mayer,” was how peripheral, at times, his impact seemed. He stood far stage-left, adding muted responses to Hamilton’s runs, while taking a few of his own. Still, when Mayer did stretch himself it was just as much as the guitarist he is away from his Dead and Co. role as he is in it; offering blues and jazz references and relatively quieter phrasing.
Certainly the three did form a formidable axe army up front, swelling “Playing in the Band” and a final “Uncle John’s Band” to their full sonic proportions. Credit bassist Dave Dreiwitz for matching all that firepower step-for-step, locking with Russo and Benevento’s rhythmic pulses and buttressing the guitar trio’s mounting expeditions. It all came together for a joyous uprising on “I Know You Rider” that emerged out of “China Cat Sunflower” and closed the set, as the six on stage united as one.
Three Dog Night’s “Never Been to Spain” was a bouncy first encore before one last jam journey on “Uncle John’s Band” finished off a night as memorable for its guest as it was for the growing glow of its host.