Last year, 4AD released The Day of the Dead, a 59-song tribute to the Grateful Dead curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National. In keeping with the label’s roster and Dessner brothers’ musical pedigree, the album credits read like a who’s who of indie rock, with everyone from Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo to Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan to the National themselves putting their signature spins on the Dead’s seemingly bottomless oeuvre. Along for the ride is Bob Weir, singer/guitarist and co-founder of the Grateful Dead, whom the Dessners enlisted-– along with Scott and Bryan Devendorf, the other fraternal duo at the heart of the National-– as a part of their “house band” for the project. The result is a mixed bag, to be sure, but one that triumphs in the aggregate. “Already containing universes, the Dead’s songbook is what makes the set enjoyable as a whole, transcending the performers and their translations,” writes Laura Snapes of Pitchfork, further noting that the Dessners & co. “treat the songs as new standards (which they are), pairing them with vocalists.”
Now, I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead for most of my life. My older cousins foisted them on me as a little kid, before I was old enough to appreciate what I was hearing; years later, during my sophomore year of high school, I revisited Europe ‘72 at the suggestion of some especially hip upperclassmen and suddenly started to “get” the Dead; within my first 24 hours at college, I fell in with a tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadhead and the rest is, as they say, history. But not until hearing such a wide variety of artists cover such a wide variety of Dead songs did I realize just how comfortably their discography rests within the canon of traditional American music. There are elements of Stephen Foster, Appalachian folk, Dixieland jazz, Chicago blues, Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building pop, honky tonk, and early rock & roll laced throughout the Dead’s work, intermingling with one another and informing the band’s sound to much the same degree that those same influences did with another artist, one who has also received his fair share of sprawling tributes over the years: Bob Dylan. In fact, Day of the Dead hinges on more or less the exact same conceit as the soundtrack to I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s impressionist Dylan “biopic” from 2007: indie-rock royalty gathering by the dozens to pay homage to a veteran songsmith whose vast body of work has proven to be every bit as timeless as “Oh! Susanna” and “God Bless America.”
Indeed, in listening to I’m Not There and Day of the Dead side by side, one gets the unshakeable sense that both Dylan and the Dead penned their own chapters in the Great American Songbook, effectively reconciling the first half of the 20th century with the second. They epitomize what Gram Parsons called “Cosmic American Music,” a refutation of genre restrictions that saved him from having to pigeonhole his own freewheeling brand of country rock. Dylan managed a similar crossover with Nashville Skyline in 1968-– the same year that Parsons and the Byrds released their twanged-out take on “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”-– and the Dead weren’t far behind: with the brilliant one-two punch of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in 1970, they successfully adapted the sounds of the South for the West Coast and its vibrant counterculture. It was also during this period that the Dead started regularly incorporating Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins into their live sets. Records like these perfectly showcase how innovative artists can embrace traditional styles and still blaze new trails across the musical landscape.
Prominent strains of the Dead’s early ‘70s sound can be traced all the way through the birth of alt-country in the 1990s and into the millennial Americana revival, which is precisely why contemporary artists like Lucinda Williams, Wilco, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and Phosphorescent sound so at home on Day of the Dead: they’re cut from the same musical cloth. These men and women have built careers carving original music out of folk and pop conventions, passed down over the course of history and cross-pollinated with other genres along the way. The result of this process-– that is, the music itself-– is subject to all kinds of definitions and hyphenations and categorizations, the broadest of which is probably “roots rock.” The best performances on Day of the Dead rest comfortably within this subgenre; while not particularly groundbreaking (especially compared to revisionist contributions from the likes of Terry Riley and Tim Hecker), these songs nonetheless manage to preserve the essence of the Dead without resorting to rote imitation.
On “Sugaree” and “Standing on the Moon,” Matthew Houck (the mastermind behind Phosphorescent) uses his distinctive lilt to great effect, channeling the sweet fragility that made Jerry Garcia’s voice so endearing despite its technical imperfections. Both songs were written by Garcia and his longtime lyricist, Robert Hunter, but “Standing on the Moon” benefits the most from Houck’s inspired touch. Having originally appeared on the Dead’s final album, the regrettably forgettable Built to Last (1989), the song was ripe for reinvention and, boy, did Houck and the house band rise to the task. Amidst wide-open acoustic strums, languidly rolling toms, and the hazy drone of electric guitars, Houck croons with casual melancholy as he measures the many sights afforded by his near-omniscient vantage point against the sheer loneliness of being there: “Standing on the moon / With nothing else to do / A lovely view of heaven / But I’d rather be with you.” The refrain is simple yet indelible, especially when given such a stark arrangement-– one befitting of the song’s unearthly setting-– and a vocal melody that’s as pretty as it is sad. The pathos of the performance brings to life all of Hunter’s quietly beautiful imagery (“I hear a cry of victory / And another of defeat / A scrap of age-old lullaby / Down some forgotten street”) and in doing so reminds the listener that even the Dead’s least essential material has the potential to enchant.
Speaking of pathos, there’s no one who better understands and utilizes that quality than Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a.k.a. Will Oldham, the arguable M.V.P. of this collection. His three contributions (the most of anyone besides the National) all succeed in captivating the listener at an emotional level, thereby transcending the novelty of their being covers. The first, “Rubin and Cherise,” is another Garcia/Hunter collaboration, this one from Garcia’s 1978 solo album, Cats Under the Stars. The song offers a loose retelling of the Orpheus myth, set against the backdrop of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with lyrics that oscillate freely between the titular lovers’ points of view. “Rubin, Rubin tell me truly true / I feel afraid and I don’t know why I do / Is there another girl for you,” sings Oldham, his gentle tenor evoking the fear and desire in Cherise’s voice, then countering it moments later with the bravado of Rubin’s response: “If you could see my heart / You would know it’s true / There’s none, Cherise, except for you.” Oldham has a gift for sounding wistful without ever lapsing into schmaltz; on “Bird Song” and especially “If I Had the World to Give” (the latter stripped down to piano and voice), he brings legitimate weight to the sentiment at hand, privileging expression over affectation in every line of every verse. Only with such lack of pretension could a man so convincingly wear his heart on his sleeve.
Elsewhere, Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen & Christopher Bear put their psych-folk stamp on “High Time” before teaming up with the National for a note-perfect rendition of “Terrapin Station” (all 16 minutes of it). Hiss Golden Messenger and the Lone Bellow play things safe yet satisfying on “Brown-Eyed Women” and “Dire Wolf,” respectively, while Charles Bradley turns “Cumberland Blues” into a convincing piece of Daptone soul. With his guest solo on Kurt Vile’s “Box of Rain,” J Mascis reasserts himself as the guitar hero of the anti-guitar-hero generation — only to have Stephen Malkmus fire back with a charismatically ragged “China/Rider” jam. These sorts of fan-friendly tributes date back to the very first Dead reunion tour in 2003 (if not earlier), usually onstage at Bonnaroo or Gathering of the Vibes during an all-star jam session. The stakes may be low, creatively speaking, but that’s half the fun-– almost as if you’re listening to the song play the artist, not the other way around.
People tend to remember the Dead for the LSD-tinged psychedelia of their earliest studio albums or the prog-jazz noodling that increasingly suffused their sound over the course of the ‘70s, but those were just flourishes, stylistic variations on formula, and highly subjective ones, at that. Throughout their career, the Dead always exhibited a willingness to reinterpret their own material over and over, night after night, tour after tour, thereby inviting other artists to do the same-– as they have with Day of the Dead. “I’ve often drawn parallels between the Dead and Sonic Youth-– both bands have three singers and three points of view and both were equally comfortable playing songs or doing deep improvisation,” says Lee Ranaldo. “And hearing all these youngsters on this project covering their music really brought home how great the songbook they created was.” The ethos of the project seems to stem from the notion that, no matter how bold or reckless the departure from the blueprint, the inherent appeal of the Dead’s songs will hold true. Yes, Deadheads love the Dead because they could jam like no other-– hence all the bootleg tapes and Dick’s Picks and online archives of unreleased soundboard mixes and so on-– but no one would want to listen to all that jamming if the source material weren’t so compelling in the first place. Arrangements-– everything from tempo and key to instrumentation and length-– are like quicksilver, forever subject to change based on artistic whims and the insatiable tastes of John Q Public. But when Bryce Dessner himself says that Day of the Dead is all about “looking into the future of what this music means in a different way,” he is implicitly acknowledging that, while perceptions change, the perceived object remains a constant-– that great music is, in fact, timeless.
By that maxim, the Dead will live forever.