The new all-star compilation Day of the Dead upends stereotypes and expectations, providing a compelling, exploratory trip through the Grateful Dead songbook, the lifeblood, really, of Brand Dead.
By Scott McLennan
The enduring mystique of the Grateful Dead intertwines music and zeitgeist. Even someone with scant knowledge of or taste for the Grateful Dead’s music has an idea of what the band represents in pop culture: psychedelia, tie-dye, drugs, improvisational jams, and tribal concerts. The resilient strength of Brand Dead means that we’ll be seeing dancing bear bumper stickers for many years to come.
Thankfully, the new all-star compilation Day of the Dead upends stereotypes and expectations, providing a compelling, exploratory trip through the Grateful Dead songbook, the lifeblood, really, of Brand Dead.
Brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National produced, curated, and appear throughout this 59-track anthology, released as part of the Red Hot Organization album series that raises funds to combat AIDS/HIV. The Dessners corralled contemporary rock and indie-folk artists, a few old-timers (including the Dead’s Bob Weir) and a smattering of musicians from the jazz, bluegrass, and world-music camps.
In other words, there are very few usual suspects on this outing, and that yields some truly refreshing outcomes.
Released by 4AD records, Day of the Dead, confronts longtime Dead Heads with uninhibitedly original takes on familiar songs. Fans of modern indie music get to hear the likes of Courtney Barnett, Phosphorescent, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The National, members of Grizzly Bear and many others a generation or two removed from the Grateful Dead’s active years reinterpret the group’s distinctively American sound, a volatile amalgamation of the traditional and the unconventional.
The selections offered on Day of the Dead favors songs associated with Jerry Garcia, the de facto leader of the Grateful Dead up until his death in 1995. In addition, the compilation, which began to take shape in 2011, consciously skews toward the Dead’s earlier work, offering such obscurities as “What’s Become of the Baby” (done by stargaze) and “Rosemary” (covered by Mina Tindle & Friends) while bypassing more familiar material, such as “Scarlett Begonias,” “Casey Jones,” and “Sugar Magnolia.” But this idiosyncratic approach pays off. Day of the Dead is a celebration of the eclecticism of the Grateful Dead. — it is not a dutiful or sentimental homage.
Some participants swing way out: Lucius weaves techno-pop beats and bleeps into the earthy anthem “Uncle John’s Band”; soul singer Charles Bradley stamps “Cumberland Blues” with a sinister funk; and Lucinda Williams treats “Going Down the Road” like a funeral dirge whereas the Dead typically played it as a barn-burning show closer.
In other cases, performers imaginatively re-jigger Dead songs. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer lays out a stirring “King Solomon’s Marbles”; West African band Tal National rearranges “Eyes of the World” into an Afro-Pop blowout; and Marijuana Deathsquads runs the iconic “Truckin’” through its experimental wringer.
A hefty portion of Day of the Dead has artists grappling, in some very interesting ways, with unlikely material. The War on Drugs typifies this approach on the opening track, in which the Grateful Dead’s biggest commercial hit, “A Touch of Grey,” is given a sleek, ethereal feel. Yet the version still conjures up the song’s collision of hope and adversity. And alt-folkie Will Oldham, in his Bonnie “Prince” Billy mode, proves to be an arch interpreter of Garcia songs with his takes on “Birdsong,” “Rubin and Cherise,” and “If I Had the World to Give.”
There are a number of collaborations of note. Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison team up on the hauntingly majestic ballad “Black Muddy River.” Garth Hudson of The Band sits in with Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, singer Little Scream, and violinist Caroline Shaw for the folk-gospel meditation “Brokedown Palace.” And the multi-cultural combo of Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, and Oliver Wood provides a surprisingly spry banjo-and-tabla driven reading of “Help on the Way.”
“Terrapin Station” is among the Dead’s most ambitious works, and the Dessners tackle it head on via an epic arrangement and resounding performance that draws on full orchestration, a vocal choir, and a percussion ensemble. A bit of “The Other One,” another Grateful Dead psychedelic suite, is woven into the track for good, mind-blowing measure.
Throughout Day of the Dead, the Dessners prove themselves to be passionate and provocative curators, serving as backing players on a number of tunes. And, with their band The National, they tackle “Morning Dew” and “Peggy-O,” two cover songs from the folk tradition that the Dead made its own through electrified versions. The project’s final cut features the Dead’s Bob Weir sitting in with The National for a live version of “I Know You Rider,” another traditional piece that the Grateful Dead performed throughout much of its career.
In just about any other circumstance, paying tribute to a band by covering songs it covered by others would seem unnecessary or just plain odd. But here the Dessners underscore and embrace the Dead’s genius for using tradition as a springboard into the exploratory. Day of the Dead is a powerful, if slyly ironic, exercise in the same spirit: the songs of the Dead are now being brought back to new-fangled life.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.