The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner have – five years after its inception – released their 59-track, six-hour tribute to the music of the Grateful Dead, Day Of The Dead, to raise money for the HIV/AIDS charity Red Hot. Underpinned by The National, over 50 different artists and bands have recorded their versions of Dead originals, covers they made their own and even a couple of ‘inspired by’ tracks. The avowedly Dead-hating and -agnostic Observer/Guardian critics gave it 4 stars; from the other end of the telescope, as a Dead-lover, I think I agree.
Last month, Carole submitted the take on Sugaree by Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends as an Earworm, and that typifies one strand of cover found in this expansive set: the almost-straight version. These are perhaps the least successful to my ears, as they invariably omit some of the more subtle aspects found in a Dead version: the drumming is usually rockier, the bass is more static, the voice often cuts against the emotion of the lyrics and some colour chords and harmonies are left out…..but one man gathers what another man spills, so this may be the way forward for non-Deadheads.
As you go deeper into the (excellently-curated) set, several less faithful covers appear, where the rhythm and mood of the song has been changed, where lyrics are delivered from a different perspective, where modern psychedelia has been added. There are also those covers where the original music has all but been discarded and the song planted in a different genre altogether. And then there are the songs that exist almost in memory form, where the lyrics have been radically altered or omitted and the music is a series of nods and winks to those who remember the originals.
I’m not yet comfortable with The Walkmen’s fairground take on Ripple, but there is nothing bad here and a lot that is very good. And not a single Jerry Garcia impersonation in earshot!
Here are ten of my faves from a first listen:
Loser – Ed Droste, Binki Shapiro & Friends
An example of the simplified cover, with less interesting bass and drums than a Dead version but an attitude that makes up for it.
Truckin’ – Marijuana Deathsquads
To transform this archetypical chugging Dead story so dramatically and yet retain its essence takes imagination and talent.
Help On The Way – Béla Fleck
Including Slipknot!, this is a near-faithful rendition, played and sung beautifully but with different instrumentation and some superb improvisation.
Estimated Prophet – The Rileys
Minimalist composer Terry Riley and his son Gyan use the instrumental motifs from the song (written in Terry’s favourite 7/4 time signature) yet replace all the words with the imagined voice of a Middle Eastern prophet.
Rosemary – Mina Tindle & Friends
A short glimpse through the mirror into another time and place.
What’s Become Of The Baby – s t a r g a z e
The Dead’s deliberately weird evocation from Aoxomoxoa given near-substance and ephemeral beauty under the menace. Is it part of an ancient sacrificial ritual?
Cumberland Blues – Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band
Ditching its last sections entirely, the song once thought to be a traditional country ditty by a real Cumberland miner is here warped into a dirty blues.
Black Peter – Anohni and yMusic
The words have been butchered, the music broken apart and the original point of the song discarded….but the new song created is, I have to admit (despite myself), rather gorgeous.
Easy Wind – Bill Callaghan
The tale of hard labour and hard women that Pigpen told with energy and attitude (and a waltz-time section) takes a seat with a bottle of Jack Daniels and some reverb.
Uncle John’s Band – Lucius
A quintessential Deadsong, moulded and dressed for different ears, yet retaining the spirit of the original. And some of the odd timing.
Here’s a YT playlist of Grateful Dead versions of the same songs, if you don’t find comparisons odious….