A few years ago, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National set out to curate an epic tribute album to The Grateful Dead. The brothers collaborated with a diverse set of musicians with an effort to re-imagine classic Grateful Dead songs for a new generation of listeners to enjoy. Their initial plan was to create one album of 10 songs. The result is a sprawling set (59 tracks on five albums!) that features many of the brightest indie stars: Wilco, The War on Drugs, My Morning Jacket, Lucius, Courtney Barnett, Charles Bradley, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten, The National, and more.
Can this new generation of artists do justice to legendary jams that made the Grateful Dead such a beloved musical act with one of the most devout followings of all time?
We share our first impressions of this epic release, Day of the Dead, which is out today via 4AD. Proceeds from the album support the non-profit Red Hot organization. Day of the Dead is the 20th album of original music Red Hot has produced over the past 25 years; proceeds help raise awareness for HIV/AIDS and related health issues.
This album was the collision of two of my most important genres of music. In college I was a devout jam band fan loving the live show experience. Unfortunately I never got see the Dead live, but I loved their live recordings. Later on my musical leanings moved to “indie rock”. The Dessner brothers have merged these two worlds into a wonderful tribute album. The album kicks of perfectly with The War on Drugs‘ beautiful rendition of “Touch of Grey”. This is followed by Phosphorescent’s take on “Sugaree”. Both these artists’ musical stylings share a certain sensibility with the Grateful Dead, making these pretty straightforward covers while still retaining the signature sounds of both performers. Other tracks like The National’s dark take on “Peggy”0”, Lucius‘ pop re-imagining of “Uncle John’s Band” and Perfume Genius & Sharon Van Etten’s lush “To Lay Me Down” make this more than an album of just covers but an artistic treat with very individualistic and personal takes on these legendary songs. The only complaint is this is a huge album that will take most a while to fully digest.
True confession: until fairly recently, I absolutely DETESTED the Grateful Dead. Despite having grown up in the shadow of the Dead’s popularity, I avoided listening to them. When college friends dropped out to “follow the Dead on tour, man!”, I refused to listen to their “hippie music”. In fact, the only Grateful Dead tune I knew was their most commercial song, “Touch of Grey.” It took a diehard Deadhead to show me the light, and now I finally appreciate the musicianship and lyrical poetry of this legendary band. This Day of the Dead collection will delight fans of both the Dead and these modern artists, because their renditions are more than just covers – they’re acts of love that truly honor the Dead. But more importantly, these 59 songs will serve as a bridge for future Dead fans who may not have a wise, interceding friend like I did. When the current generation hears the Dead through the filter of artists like Unknown Mortal Orchestra, The War on Drugs, The National, Charles Bradley, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, a new generation of Deadheads will emerge.
The War On Drugs were meant to cover “Touch of Grey” (and they do it sweet justice) while Mumford & Sons put their own creative spin on “Friend of the Devil”. I love how Unknown Mortal Orchestra‘s take on “Shakedown Street” has just enough of their own trippy vibe that it feels completely original. But one of the standout tracks is Charles Bradley & Menahan Street Band giving the Dead’s 1969 hit “Cumberland Blues” a mellotron-fueled psychedelic reworking. There’s not a wrong turn in this entire set.
From the second I heard that this album might be happening, I was confused, The National covering The Grateful Dead. How could that even work? Well, once the list of guests got out there and included artists like Phosphorescent, Charles Bradley, Wilco, Angel Olsen and so many of the absolute best artists out there right now, the hype was on! The War On Drugs open the record hard with “Touch Of Grey”, adding that distinctive Granduciel touch to the Grateful Dead classic. Phosphorescent and Jenny Lewis turn in a faithful “Sugaree” on their first of two tracks each. Phosphorescent returns later in the record with an absolutely stunning rendition of “Standing on the Moon”, and Lewis does a great rendition of “Cassidy” with the always amazing Moses Sumney. There are some great tracks that blend what made the originals so great with the distinct sounds of the performer. Courtney Barnett‘s “New Speedway Boogie”, Lucius‘ “Uncle John’s Band”, and The National‘s “Peggy O” would all fit well on any of their own records. The record closes with an amazing and faithful live rendition of “I Know You Rider”, by the National and Bob Weir, bringing great live energy and an original Dead member in to close out what is a long but really enjoyable 59 tracks. Day of The Dead is a great tribute, love letter, and thank you to one of the most influential bands in history by the bands they influenced directly, performed by a real who’s who of today’s indie/alternative scene.
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