Joe Russo Calls Colorado His Creative 'Ground Zero' | Westword

Joe Russo Calls Colorado His Creative 'Ground Zero'

Ahead of shows at Red Rocks, the Bluebird, and in Vail, the JRAD founder and drummer reflects on what keeps him coming back to Colorado.
JRAD at The Capitol Theatre.
JRAD at The Capitol Theatre. Scott Harris
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New Jersey native Joe Russo came out west to attend CU Denver…except he never made it to class. “I was supposed to start school,” he says. “Yeah, that was the plan. I moved out there. And within a week, it was like, ‘See you, Denver.’” Instead, the drummer joined a band of cutting-edge Boulder jazz and rock musicians who called themselves Fat Mama.

He put off college for a semester, but that semester break turned into decades. “Now I'm a 47-year-old father of two living in New Jersey. So I'm very happy with the way everything worked out.”

He cut his teeth playing at all the rooms around Denver. “I have a lot of history in Colorado, too, which is always a really fun thing when we get to kind of go back to ground zero.”

Since he was born in 1976, Russo missed the Grateful Dead’s heyday, and was a metalhead in his teens, then a jazz player when he was supposed to be in college. “My entry into the Grateful Dead was when I was asked by Phil Lesh and Bob Weir to join their band Furthur in 2009. And to be honest, up until that point, I hadn’t come around on the idea of the Grateful Dead,” he admits. But by then he was older and more musically mature, and open to the Dead’s oeuvre.

“I was far more mature than a twelve-year-old angrily wearing all black and my Metallica ‘Kill Them All’ T-shirt. My first real, true grasp of the Grateful Dead was when I was asked to join Furthur, that touring outfit, and feverishly had to learn, you know, 200 songs very quickly.”

He recalls that it was “a humbling experience to enter a world that I thought wasn't of huge interest to me, and to discover the depth and the catalogue. And the depths of the musicality and, you know, the whole thing, man — it kicked my ass and humbled me beyond belief.”

When he dove into the Dead’s music and realized how much improvisation was part of the sound’s foundation, Russo understood. He could play every style of music and meld it with the Grateful Dead’s songs. Long, avant-garde improvisations? No problem. Heavy-metal guitar shredding on classic Dead tracks? Yup. Folksy bluegrass and country styles as a base for intricate harmonies and instrumental breaks? Absolutely.
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Joe Russo's Almost Dead on stage.
Andrew Scott Blackstein

Joe Russo's Almost Dead returns to Colorado

Joe Russo's Almost Dead, or JRAD, was formed in 2013 as a one-off, but has been so embraced by the Dead’s base and a growing audience of fans of all genres that it’s become Russo's main gig.

On June 1, see JRAD at Red Rocks with very special guest jazz musician Branford Marsalis. It makes perfect sense to perform with Marsalis, a saxophone master who’s embraced many styles of music from his start as a jazz star while JRAD has built its reputation on playing the songs of the Grateful Dead as a jazz catalogue.

Russo and Marsalis met when Marsalis performed with Red Rocks. Last year JRAD headlined the famous Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, and Marsalis joined the group on stage. This will be the first time they’ve met up since.

JRAD will also perform a sold-out show at the Gerald Ford Amphitheatre in Vail on May 31, the night before the Red Rocks gig. And Russo’s newest artsy and atmospheric ensemble, Selcouth Quartet, makes a stop at the Bluebird Theater on Sunday, June 2.

Clearly, Almost Dead has a special place in the hearts of Colorado music fans, and Russo shares the same feelings about playing here.

“Colorado is one of those amazing places that's always been a very supportive and exciting fan base for any of the projects that any of us have ever been in, so, you know, it’s always a special homecoming," he says. "Making our way from like, I guess, the Bluebird and the Ogden and other places, it’s been bigger and better all the time."

He concludes, “We've been playing this music at amazing venues, and we are beyond lucky and constantly aware of how beautiful of a life we have. We don't take it lightly. And of course, Colorado and Red Rocks is built in every single year because it’s such a dream.”
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