Aaron and Bryce Dessner have masterfully assembled a dizzying array of contemporary artists to reinterpret the songs of the Grateful Dead.
Few bands have enjoyed the kind of critical reappraisal now being afforded the Grateful Dead. Once reviled by critics and music snobs as a band prone mostly to aimless noodling, cooler heads have prevailed as their catalog is being reexamined through the lens of a variety of musicians and writers. You could say that the seeds of this reappraisal were sown in 1991 with the release of Deadicated, a Dead tribute album that brought together artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Los Lobos, Jane’s Addiction, and Burning Spear. Deadicated is a perfectly decent collection, but it's a tame, mere sliver of a thing compared to Day of the Dead.
Day of the Dead is the brainchild of Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, who brought together an exhaustive collection of artists to reinterpret the music of the Grateful Dead. The fact that such a tribute album exists goes a long way toward chipping away at the misconceptions associated with the Dead. What’s being celebrated here—for the most part—are the songs. Singer/guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlow (the four songwriters who composed the lion’s share of the Dead’s music) created a vast, deeply felt, and expertly crafted songbook.
As is expected in a tribute of this scale (59 songs, more than five hours of music), the range of eclecticism is wide, the interpretations running the gamut from note-for-note covers to total transformations. The Lone Bellow run through a pretty standard version of the country/folk stomper “Dire Wolf”. Wilco team up with Bob Weir for a rollicking live take of the guitar-heavy “St. Stephen”, a version strikingly similar to the original, but with guitar wizard Nels Cline doing such a stunning Jerry Garcia imitation, it’s hard not to fall in love with it. Courtney Barnett’s cover of “New Speedway Boogie” preserves the bluesy shuffle of the 1970 recording, although the song’s urgency seems slightly dulled (it was written as a somewhat shell-shocked reaction to the tragic events of the Altamont music festival).
At other points, songs are given just enough of a retooling for the new artist to put his or her unique stamp on the composition. Brooklyn’s Lucius transform “Uncle John’s Band” from a small folk classic to a modern art-pop masterpiece, with quirky keyboards meshing perfectly with drum machines and reverb-drenched guitar figures. The band’s lush harmonies put a refreshing spin on the original track’s vocals (which were already terrific). Elsewhere, Bill Callahan takes the gritty blues of “Easy Wind” and turns it into a haunting, Leonard Cohenesque neo-noir ballad.
The War on Drugs kick off the set with their version of the only Dead song to hit the pop charts, “Touch of Grey”, and while it retains the spirit of the original, the cover manages to incorporate the War on Drugs’ signature motorik beat while also recalling a vocal style that falls somewhere between Bob Dylan and Bryan Ferry—a curious, but ultimately rewarding listen. Mumford and Sons tend to get flak for, well, being Mumford and Sons, and they don’t do much to redeem themselves here. Their contribution isn’t disastrous, but why this band of banjo and mandolin slingers chose to cover the Appalachian folk of “Friend of the Devil” by slowing it down and deadening it with banks of keyboards and drum programming—essentially turning it into a Coldplay song—is beyond me.
In terms of complete transformations, most of the more radical covers work to the artists’ advantage. Anohni and yMusic’s cover of “Black Peter” had me searching for the original version, knowing full well that I knew the song but couldn’t place it in the context of the cover. Essentially, the lyrics are the same, but the music is beautifully rearranged as something of a chamber piece, not unlike an ambitious, ornate Rufus Wainwright tone poem. Likewise, Nigeria’s Tal National transform the mid-tempo country boogie of “Eyes of the World” into a joyous, world music party anthem, and Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab take the delicious funk riff of “Franklin’s Tower” and translate it into their native tongue while managing to retain the simple pleasures of what made the original so much fun. Classical minimalist legend Terry Riley (of “In C” fame) teams up with his son Gyan for a version of “Estimated Prophet” that bears no resemblance to the original but includes a healthy dose of chanting, some noisy melodica, and atonal piano banging that somehow conjures up the quasi-exotic nature of the Dead’s version.
As far as some of the more established indie artists go, Kurt Vile rambles his way through an instantly recognizable version of “Box of Rain” (co-written by Dead bassist Phil Lesh) while J Mascis pushes the song into the stratosphere with some typically stellar lead guitar work. Likewise, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo provides some notable high points, collaborating with Lisa Hannigan for a lovely, straightforward folk take on the baroque psychedelia of “Mountains of the Moon”. Ranaldo also collaborates with TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe for a sturdy reworking of “Playing in the Band”, navigating the song through noisy, dissonant avenues before returning for a final chorus. It’s basically what you would expect a guy from Sonic Youth to do with a Grateful Dead song, and it’s an important performance in that it successfully bridges the gap between ‘60s psychedelia and indie noise rock.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s presence on Day of the Dead looms large—he’s given three songs here—and while he doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, his recordings are among the most admirable. His unique, heartfelt renditions of “If I Had the World to Give”, “Bird Song”, and “Rubin and Cherise” (the latter a Jerry Garcia solo track from Cats Under the Stars) are simple, unadorned pleasures.
One of the rare examples of Day of the Dead taking a good thing too far comes from Minnesota’s Marijuana Deathsquads (a band that, with a name like that, almost seems contractually obligated to participate in a Dead tribute album). Their unique take on “Truckin’” is reckless and fun, but the weirdness all too often overtakes the composition to the point where the whole thing falls apart long before it’s over.
For a band that has attracted its fair share of jazz admirers and collaborators (including Ornette Coleman and Branford Marsalis), not to mention the fact that their onstage presence was highly influenced by the improvisational nature of jazz, it’s only fair to have a hint of that genre represented in any Dead tribute album. Pianist Vijay Iyer takes on the knotty fusion of “King Solomon’s Marbles” and manages to infuse the spirit of both Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. Bela Fleck brings his legendary banjo chops (along with a healthy Indian influence, thanks to the presence of a tabla) to a lovely, straightforward version of “Help on the Way”.
A number of the tracks on Day of the Dead are not covers per se, but fairly improvisational works inspired by the spirit of the Grateful Dead. Experimental synth artist Tim Hecker’s “Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald” is his tribute to the “plunderphonics” collages later collected on the Dead’s Grayfolded album. “Garcia Counterpoint” is Bryce Dessner’s sumptuous instrumental tribute to Jerry’s unique and deservedly praised lead guitar style. The Dead’s twin drum attack of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart birthed the “Drums>Space” soloing that became a staple of the band’s live shows, and here, Man Forever, So Percussion, and Oneida pay percussive tribute to a band that managed to successfully and adventurously incorporate two drummers.
It would be easy for me to pick apart Day of the Dead track by track, giving all 59 parts their own unique analysis. The collection is that strong, and even when there are rare moments when the covers don’t particularly work, it’s hard to not at least admire what the artist is attempting to do. Beyond the charitable goals of the set (proceeds benefit the Red Hot Organization, an HIV/AIDS awareness charity), one would hope that these performances will go a long way toward raising awareness of what the Grateful Dead accomplished over their lengthy career, not just in terms of pop culture, but in their contributions to the Great American Songbook.