Many of you youngsters may be too new to this world to remember a time when kids would just straight up leave school to go follow the Grateful Dead on tour, rather than simply head out early on Friday to load up with beer and drive their brand new Subarus to the latest corporate sponsored music festival. Oh, but it’s true, my friends, and over the years, there have been inconsistent ups and downs, as far as public perception concerning one of music world’s most enduring institutions. Depending on who you are and the climate in which you currently exist, it may either surprise you to discover that they were ever viewed in a favorable light, or the inverse, that there was a time when they were so underappreciated. To be entirely honest, it’s still difficult for me to gauge, entirely, where they sit in the minds of today.
Around the time that I moved to Seattle, 10 years ago, it was amidst a heavy resurgence in psych rock and I would find myself regularly commenting to friends about how absurd it was to me that there was still a stigma around the pioneering Bay Area outfit. How could you be all about tripped-out jammers and psych folk, without ever acknowledging the group that created albums like Anthem Of The Sun? The retro shit was as hype and trendy with the hip kids as it’s ever been, but it still felt as if there was a disconnect that would have to come to a head, at some point. Those who were more in touch with the current music and cultural climate than I was was, at that point, would assure me that it was already beginning to happen. The same way that you might hear someone dismiss the significance of a band like Phish for multiple external reasons, without ever actually hearing them, that was still equally prevalent toward the The Dead, just a mere decade ago. I’m sure that it remains that way to a large degree, but it’s great for those of us that have had such great respect for their work, their influence, and what they’ve accomplished, to see them obtain a much greater level of recognition throughout the music community and beyond. Now an impressive new 59-song boxset featuring a number of extraordinary fellow artists paying tribute to The Grateful Dead is working to raise both continued recognition of the groundbreaking group to a whole demographic of folks that have yet to experience their brilliant catalog, along with money for research and treatment of one of the most devastating diseases that we’ve encountered in our lifetimes.
When I had the opportunity to interview Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, The Jick) at the tail end of 2013, a good chunk of the conversation turned toward The Dead. As Stephen explained, while he has since become a fan of the band’s music — particularly, their 1970s material — the spaced-out, peace-sign, “dirty hippie” stigma surrounding them could all too easily color the perspectives of a punk kid, like himself, growing up in a place like Stockton, California in the 1980s.
“In the eighties, I really didn’t like ‘em, ‘cause I was sort of a punk guy. There were punks that liked the Dead, but I wasn’t that advanced to see that, you know. I was not mature enough — * laughs * — to understand that you could like hardcore and the Grateful Dead. But there were some punks in my town — in Stockton — that were, that did like them that way. And they weren’t like Greg Ginn, or The Meat Puppets; those kind of bands — they were sort of Dead and punk. But this is even before that. They were, sort of, like, “I like the Dead Kennedys and I also go to Dead shows.””
The reason that the topic was presented, in the first place, is because, as Malkmus acknowledged, there has always been noticeable Dead-like tendencies interspersed and hidden within the songwriter’s material, over the years. Likewise, the influence of The Dead has infiltrated an endless plethora of more current artists, who have grown impressive fanbases of their own that might not be well aware of that fact. Some of these influences are likely apparent to longtime Deadheads, while others might be a bit more surprising. What I believe is often the most surprising thing of all, for those who have never really delved too deeply into the Dead‘s discography, is not only how widely their fanbase extends, but the depth and range of their material, as well.
I believe that it was sometime back in March when I first started hearing about the new tribute/compilation album titled, Day Of The Dead and, admittedly, didn’t pay any real attention to it. I’ve seen a number of tribute albums over the years and, from my experience, I have found the overwhelming majority of them to be less than impressive. Usually, a number of unrelated artists are tossed together to cover tracks from some band and, for the most part, they are as arbitrary, inconsistent, and as much of a novelty as the Judgment Night soundtrack. The Dead, alone, have already endured their own hefty share.
In 1991, came Deadicated, an album of covers featuring the likes of Los Lobos, Bruce Hornsby & The Range, Indigo Girls (yikes), Lyle Lovett, Suzanne Vega (2 tracks), Dwight Yokam, and Janes Addiction. There was even a contribution by a band called The Harshed Mellows. Some of these acts were were closely associated with The Dead (Hornsby was even a touring member), while others were much less so, but overall, Deadicated was a collection of, generally, uninspired, watered down, or all around misguided covers with a few very select interesting moments mixed in. 5 years later, Fire On The Mountain, an album full of covers by reggae artists, delivered a selection of more upbeat summery tunes from the band’s catalog and felt like another one-dimensional effort with little substance (no “Scarlet Begonias,” as Sublime already kind of dribbled their watery Natty Ice piss all over that cut, by that point). A second volume followed the next year, along with David West‘s slightly more interesting Pickin’ On The Grateful Dead, which featured instrumental bluegrass versions of the band’s tunes; a fitting tribute as both the Dead and Jerry Garcia‘s solo work were instrumental in introducing the genre to a number of fans that may have never explored bluegrass otherwise. The tributes continued with Jazz Is Dead (also a touring jazz supergroup); Swingin’ To The Dead (yep… a fucking swing album); and the expectedly uneven Stolen roses, which collected live covers from various artists (props to The Persuasions for their unique interpretation — not so much Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band). There’s a group releasing albums of Celtic covers, one with snotty punk covers, an album full of blues renditions, one with horrendous harp interpretations, even the painful Electronic Tribute To The Grateful Dead, along with an album of covers intended for yoga, and another with Lullaby Versions Of The Dead. By this point, it should be fairly clear why, if I get a press release about a Grateful Dead tribute album, there’s a good chance that I might just scroll right the fuck past it. The idea of another one sounds as terrible as it does sleep inducing.
As much as my disdain toward the idea of another Dead cover album should be understandable, much of the reasoning for the stigma surrounding the band, themselves, doesn’t elude me. One might be able to argue that every passionate fanbase includes a group of followers who actively present themselves as the official representatives of that “scene,” band, project, artform, what have you; often creating and perpetuating stereotypes that turn droves of outsiders away. Likewise, these cover albums — which all seem to pull from the same handful of tracks, by the way — have felt like cheap representations of a legacy and culture that I have a very deep, heartfelt, appreciation for. Those of you who have seen our 2012 post offering a free download of Jerry Garcia and John Kahn’s 1982 Oregon State Penitentiary show might remember that it was not only posted in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the iconic performance, but in response to a writer for a local weekly that posted a short piece on their website, in which he pleaded: “Somebody, explain the Grateful Dead, please.” His request was sincere and, after I sent him the bootleg, he thanked me, because he genuinely enjoyed it and had never been exposed to that aspect of the group before.
What I wrote in that post, pertaining to this situation, is something that I still believe today:
“It seems that, without fail, anytime someone asks a question like this regarding a marginalized group or interest, fans will undoubtedly offer up one of two polar opposites: the most bland thing they have to offer or the most difficult to digest. For the Dead, there’s generally going to be a lot of poppy happy-time suggestions like the studio version of “Sugar Magnolia” or it’s gonna be the most twisted out 35 minute jam that they can get their hands on. The problem is that it’s likely that the simpler little tunes might not be enough to really impress and further draw someone in who’s sincerely asking for someone to help them puncture their already pre-fabricated iffy opinions of the band, and the difficult shit is… well, it’s the difficult shit for a reason. ” There are generally less severe options than having to choose between something like Kind of Blue and Live Evil. What’s so great about the Dead is that there are so many different areas explored by the group throughout its run. There’s everything from the crazy spaced-out psychedelic chaos to rootsy folk gems and, over the years, I’ve often found myself settling in with different specific time periods and/or sounds from the group’s career, before moving on to explore another one for a while.”
This is something that the Dessner brothers, who curated Day Of The Dead, understand to a wondrous degree. Huge longtime fans, the press release states that Bryce and Aaron — known best as members of Cincinnati indie rock outfit, The National — “recall their first-ever jam session at 14 years old with The National’s future drummer Bryan Devendorf playing the Dead‘s “Eyes of the World” for several hours in Bryan’s attic in suburban Ohio” and that the band’s music was, actually, a “gateway” for the siblings to begin playing music together, at all. The term “curate” is tossed around way too often, these days, and from the amount of art shows that we’ve previewed on the site, it seems that it often just involves rounding up the exact same usual suspects to throw together whatever they want without much focus on cohesion. With Day Of The Dead, on the other hand, the painstaking effort has clearly been invested to delve into some lesser known territory and represent the enormous range of the Dead‘s catalog by offering over 5 hours of music in the form of 4-dozen tracks that have each been carefully placed into the hands of 60-plus contributors that were seen as the appropriate artists or ensemble to tackle each one. The work being presented here is undeniably more hands-on, involved, and, most importantly, aware, as evidenced by the fact that this project took 4 years to record and involves the Dessners and co-producer, Josh Kaufman appearing on many of the tracks as part of “an all-star house band” including “National bandmates and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf […] and Conrad Doucette along with Sam Cohen and Walter Martin.” One such track that should help potential skeptics give this project a more thorough examination, whether they are leery of the bands covering the music or of the band being covered, features this ensemble teaming with members of Grizzly Bear (Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear), Sō Percussion, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, complete with a mini orchestra, to take on the incredibly ambitious epic, “Terrapin Suite,” in its entirety. Those who know, know that this is some sacred territory to try and fuck with, but the success in which they’ve managed to recreate one of the Dead‘s most revered tunes, while breathing some different life into it, is about as respectful and admirable of an attempt as you’re likely to come across, anywhere.
The fact that I scrolled right past a press release containing information and a link to the above video/track seems odd, even to me, now, but is representative of how easy it is to dismiss certain things on face value. What finally turned me around was a brand new press release that we just received yesterday, which included 5 new tracks (all featured below), one of which features Bonnie “Prince” Billy covering “Ruben & Cherise,” which then prompted me to look further to discover that he also provides two other contributions to the project. Notorious for his penchant of putting a different impromptu spin on his own compositions each time that he performs them, along with some incredibly unorthodox covers (see here and here), the Louisville songwriter approaches this tune differently, remaining fairly true to the tone from the Jerry Garcia Band‘s Cat’s Under The Stars album on which it first appeared. Every song that they sent, this time, was intriguing to where I could see exactly why each individual artist was chosen for their particular track. Unknown Mortal Orchestra melding their Prince-like funk into the disco groove of “Shakedown Street.” Perfume Genius with Sharon Van Etten & Friends offering their delicate harmonies on “To Lay Me Down.” I wasn’t sure what to expect from Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band doing “Cumberland Blues,” but anyone who has ever heard their cover of Black Sabbath‘s “Changes” or the version of “Stay Away” they did for Spin Magazine’s 2011 Nirvana tribute, should recognize that they have the ability to deliver arresting new spins on classics from a refreshing and earnest angle that no one could ever quite anticipate.
I now realize that I did listen to The War On Drugs rendition of “Touch Of Gray” with the first batch of revealed tracks, but the likely reason that it didn’t draw me in is because there was nothing too surprising about one of the boys’ most well-known songs being interpreted by a band that is clearly influenced by them in a way that sounds like two of their other obvious inspirations — Bob Dylan and Dire Straits — were doing it. It adds validity to see contributions from folks like Hornsby (with DeYarmond Edison), contemporaries like Bela Fleck (with Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, and Chris Wood), and, Dead guitarist, Bob Weir (teaming up with Wilco and The National, for separate tracks), but it’s the inclusion of names like Bill Callahan, Senegal‘s Orchestra Baobab, Tunde Adebimpe (TV On The Radio) with Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Kurt Vile and the Violators (featuring J Mascis), Anohni (formerly Antony), Oneida, The Rileys (Terry Riley and his son, Gyan) and, of course, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, which were the real head turners. If seeing these names is enough for me to finally get over my prejudice about Dead tribute compilations and give this thing a shot, hopefully, this project will also be able to bring in some new appreciation for one of my favorite bands of all time, while exposing listeners to the work of so many other brilliant artists and styles of music in the process. Even if it’s a slow burn, I trust that it will be able to accomplish that. Plus, one major bonus is the fact that the faux-soul crooning of John Mayer isn’t to be found anywhere on this release.
Another incredibly vital aspect to acknowledge about this project is that, just like the 3xLP Dark Was The Night compilation that the Dessners assembled back in 2009, Day Of The Dead is part of a series of original music compilations produced for the Red Hot organization to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS. In fact, all proceeds go toward that cause. In other words, this project has strength and deserves your support for a number of reasons.
While information on ordering the limited edition vinyl box is still yet to be revealed [UPDATE: pre-order through HERE], you can currently pre-order a physical copy of the 5xCD version now for only $29.99 from 4AD records through THIS LINK, or pre-order the digital version, for about the same price HERE.
Those lucky enough to make it out to Justin Vernon‘s (Bon Iver, DeYarmond Edison) second annual Eaux Claires Festival (August 12-13) in Wisconsin this summer, will also have the opportunity to catch a Day of the Dead live performance, “featuring Jenny Lewis, Matthew Houck (Phosphorescent), Lucius, Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy), Sam Amidon, Richard Reed Perry, Matt Berninger, Justin Vernon, Bruce Hornsby, Ruban Nielson (Unknown Mortal Orchestra) and The National, who all appear on the record.”
DIGITAL TRACK LISTING:
01. Touch of Grey – The War on Drugs
02. Sugaree – Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends
03. Candyman – Jim James & Friends
04. Cassidy – Moses Sumney, Jenny Lewis & Friends
05. Black Muddy River – Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison
06. Loser – Ed Droste, Binki Shapiro & Friends
07. Peggy-O – The National
08. Box of Rain – Kurt Vile and the Violators (featuring J Mascis)
09. Rubin and Cherise – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Friends
10. To Lay Me Down – Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten & Friends
11. New Speedway Boogie – Courtney Barnett
12. Friend of the Devil – Mumford & Sons
13. Uncle John’s Band – Lucius
14. Me and My Uncle – The Lone Bellow & Friends
15. Mountains of the Moon – Lee Ranaldo, Lisa Hannigan & Friends
16. Black Peter – Anohni and yMusic
17. Garcia Counterpoint – Bryce Dessner
18. Terrapin Station (Suite) – Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear and The National (featuring Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette, So Percussion and Brooklyn Youth Chorus)
19. Attics of My Life – Angel Olsen
20. St. Stephen (live) – Wilco with Bob Weir
“Lightning” (Vol. 2)
01. If I Had the World to Give – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
02. Standing on the Moon – Phosphorescent & Friends
03. Cumberland Blues – Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band
04. Ship of Fools – The Tallest Man on Earth & Friends
05. Bird Song – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Friends
06. Morning Dew – The National
07. Truckin’ – Marijuana Deathsquads
08. Dark Star – Cass McCombs, Joe Russo & Friends
09. Nightfall of Diamonds – Nightfall of Diamonds
10. Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald – Tim Hecker
11. Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad – Lucinda Williams & Friends
12. Playing in the Band – Tunde Adebimpe, Lee Ranaldo & Friends
13. Stella Blue – Local Natives
14. Eyes of the World – Tal National
15. Help on the Way – Bela Fleck
16. Franklin’s Tower – Orchestra Baobab
17. Till the Morning Comes – Luluc with Xylouris White
18. Ripple – The Walkmen
19. Brokedown Palace – Richard Reed Parry with Caroline Shaw and Little Scream (featuring Garth Hudson)
“Sunshine” (Vol. 3)
01. Here Comes Sunshine – Real Estate
02. Shakedown Street – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
03. Brown-Eyed Women – Hiss Golden Messenger
04. Jack-A-Roe – This Is the Kit
05. High Time – Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear
06. Dire Wolf – The Lone Bellow & Friends
07. Althea – Winston Marshall, Kodiak Blue and Shura
08. Clementine Jam – Orchestra Baobab
09. China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider – Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
10. Easy Wind – Bill Callahan
11. Wharf Rat – Ira Kaplan & Friends
12. Estimated Prophet – The Rileys
13. Drums -> Space – Man Forever, So Percussion and Oneida
14. Cream Puff War – Fucked Up
15. Dark Star – The Flaming Lips
16. What’s Become of the Baby – s t a r g a z e
17. King Solomon’s Marbles – Vijay Iyer
18. Rosemary – Mina Tindle & Friends
19. And We Bid You Goodnight – Sam Amidon
20. I Know You Rider (live) – The National with Bob Weir