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What does it mean to be: A conversation with Joe Russo

Joe Russo. Joe Russo. Michael DiDonna photo

When drummer Joe Russo takes a moment to reflect on his decades-long friendship and collaboration with guitarist Tom Hamilton, he can’t help but be in awe of their cosmic connection. 

“It’s like we’re brothers, you know?” Russo said. “We’ve had a bond, ever since we met, on some kind of cellular level. There’s a deep thread of friendship and love there — he’s a phenomenal musician [who’s] constantly trying to reinvent himself.” 

For Russo, his continued musical journey has become one of legend. What started over 20 years ago alongside keyboard wizard Marco Benevento in the indie-jazz project Benevento/Russo Duo, soon parlayed itself into creative endeavors with American Babies, an Americana/rock act fronted by Hamilton.

“[Where] Marco and I share a telepathy, Tommy and I also have a different version of that,” Russo said. “There’s so much information that can be shared by a simple look or [speeding up tempo] — it’s all just so unspoken.”

Since 2013, Russo, Benevento and Hamilton have come together as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD). Whereas the core of the group is the unknown depths of the Grateful Dead’s song catalog, the orbiting principals remain sonic exploration and improvisation.

“[We’re all] running to same punchline when somebody says something [musically],” Russo said. “JRAD is built on this — this [ongoing] silent conversation and trust [playing together].” 

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To note, American Babies will be returning to the stage for a special performance during the Warren Haynes’ “Christmas Jam,” which will be taking place Saturday, Dec. 9, at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville.

Although Russo hails from the more avant-garde jazz and indie realms, the last 15 years or so have found him wandering down the rabbit hole of the Grateful Dead — something as unexpected as it is creatively bountiful and ever-evolving.

Initially, Russo was tapped by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Phil Lesh to anchor a new Dead offshoot, Furthur, in 2009. That incarnation lasted until 2014. So, with a deep knowledge of Dead material in his back pocket, Russo, by happenstance, needed to fill a last-minute Brooklyn gig and formed JRAD in 2013. 

“The five of us [in JRAD] in this position are literally that last guys that should be, on paper, [doing this],” Russo chuckled. “But, I think that’s why it works, because we’re not trying to replicate anything and we’re not trying to do the thing the way [the Grateful Dead] did it — we come from such wildly different musical places, which allows [us] to have a slightly different version of a song.”

Amid the continued success of JRAD, it also provides Russo and his bandmates with artistic freedom to duck down other musical avenues. Russo juggles a handful of projects throughout the year, with Benevento and Hamilton following suit. Same goes for JRAD guitarist Scott Metzger and bassist Dave Dreiwitz.

“We have a hard line of 40 shows a year with [JRAD], so that keeps it reasonable for us, keeps it fresh and fun every time we get onstage,” Russo said. “And then, it leaves us so much time in our calendars to work on other projects and spent time with our families — it’s a great cross-section that we found ourselves in.”

And, what was supposed to be a one-off show has now, a decade later, evolved into one of the most sought-after and cherished touring acts on the festival circuit today — a joyous, melodic space inhabited by die-hard Dead Heads and the curious alike.

“One of the greatest joys from getting the Furthur gig back is now being able to look at this thing that I get to share with my friends,” Russo noted about the growth of JRAD. “[Back then], Tommy was living on my couch, where it was [putting money together] to decide if we wanted food or cigarettes that day, to being able to now share this thing together — it always comes back to gratitude.”

That camaraderie between the members of JRAD is something not lost on Russo or the rest of the quintet. If anything, the sacred, ancient act of live performance only hones in on the eternal bonds between those five members onstage and in-the-moment.

“All five of us go back so long, to the infantile stages of our careers and us as essentially kids in New York City being 20 years old, where Marco and I go back to middle school,” Russo said. “And that’s the thing that makes this so special and different. It’s truly a bunch of friends who just found themselves in this very strange, fortunate and awesome place together — it’s an absolute gift.”

Want to go?

A beloved holiday tradition, the annual “Christmas Jam” presented by Warren Haynes will be held on Saturday, Dec. 9, at the Arena in the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville.

Featured artists will be Gov’t Mule, Slash & Myles Kennedy, Billy F. Gibbons, Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening, Clutch, American Babies and Karina Rykman, with special guests George Porter Jr., John Medeski, Bill Evans and more.

For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to

Jam by Day

Before the doors open for “Christmas Jam” on Saturday, Dec. 9, pre-show festivities will be held throughout the “Jam by Day” at venues around downtown Asheville.

Kicking off at noon, there will be a wide-array of live music from local, regional and national acts at the Asheville Music Hall, One Stop and Jack of the Wood.

Artists at the AMH and OS will include Sneezy, Red Clay Revival, Andrew Scotchie, Paper Crowns, Mike Barnes & Friends, The Snozberries, Empire Strikes Brass and more. 

At JOTW, the “Songwriters in the Round” will feature Ashley Heath, Leigh Glass, Kevin Fuller, Christina Chandler, Ray Sisk, Morgan Greer, Aaron “Woody” Wood, Kevin Smith and more.

For more information and a full schedule, go to

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