7 Jun 2016

Day Of The Dead: an epic tribute to the music and artistry of the Grateful Dead

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 7 June 2016
Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National curate a Grateful Dead tribute.

Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National curate a Grateful Dead tribute. Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger surveys an epic five-disc tribute to tie-dyed icons Grateful Dead.

Bryce and Aaron Dessner like big projects. A few years ago, the twin brothers – who play in the group The National – oversaw Dark Was The Night: a two-disc compilation for AIDS fundraiser the Red Hot Organisation, a celebration of alternative music in the broadest sense, with contributors ranging from Cat Power to the Kronos Quartet. Now they have curated another Red Hot collection on an even grander scale.

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The theme is the music of the Grateful Dead, that legendary American band, known among other things for concerts of epic length. In their heyday, a Dead show could last anything up to six hours, which is roughly the length of Day Of The Dead: a staggering 59 tracks, spread over 5 discs. To a Deadhead, that’s obviously an appropriate tribute. For anyone who dislikes the Dead it’s a promise of torture.

(There’s a joke told among the unconverted that goes: What do Deadheads say to each other when the drugs wear off? Answer: What is this horrible music we’re listening to?)

Then there are those who wouldn’t know whether they liked the Grateful Dead or not - after all, it’s more than twenty years since the group disbanded, following the death of its leader and figurehead Jerry Garcia, and there’s a generation for whom the Dead are just some hairy hippie band from the pages of history. For such people, Day Of The Dead makes a good corrective. Though the music here isn’t performed by the Grateful Dead, the Dessners have gone out of their way to show what the Dead were, representing their work in all its facets.

The set seems to be designed to ease you in gradually, opening with ‘Touch Of Grey’, the Grateful Dead’s fluke top ten hit from 1987, the only time in their 30-year career that they ever threatened the pop charts. It’s reworked in an 80s-retro style by the War On Drugs, with frontman Adam Granduciel offering a passable approximation of Garcia’s reedy singing.

In fact, one thing that is established early in this collection is the uncanny number of contemporary singers who can sound like dead ringers for Jerry Garcia, a singer I always thought of as unique in his plaintive, unflashy warble. Jim James of My Morning Jacket does a plausible ‘Candyman’, backed by the album’s house band, which includes the Dessners, fellow Nationals Bryan and Scott Devendorf and drummer Conrad Doucette, while Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste tackles the Garcia solo tune ‘Loser’.

By this point the Grateful Dead neophyte may be getting the impression that the Dead weren’t so psychedelic after all, but rather a mellow country-rock band; and at times that’s exactly what they were. It’s not all they were though, and one of the things that made them interesting, even at their most erratic, was that they could be many things at once. In his pre-Dead days, Garcia had been a jug band and bluegrass musician, elements of which remained a cornerstone of the group’s sound throughout their thirty years. Bass player Phil Lesh, on the other hand, was a trained classical trumpeter and had studied composition under Italian modernist Luciano Berio. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann (kroytsman) had a background in jazz; percussionist Mickey Hart was an ethnomusicologist, and guitarist Bob Weir was the closest thing they had to a conventional rock’n’roller. They came together in San Francisco in the mid-60s, just as the hippie movement was staking its ground, and almost by default became its soundtrack. They played at acid tests, trips festivals and Be-In’s, and what had started out as a fairly stock repertoire of 60s folk-rock began to expand into cosmic opuses, which the Dessners’ nod to here in tracks like ‘Nightfall Of Diamonds’, a long improvisation in which the Dessners capture the spirit of one of the Dead’s psychedelic jams, while creating a whole new piece of music.

At other times, it’s more the classical experimentalism of the Dead that’s being honoured. Pioneering minimalist Terry Riley and his son Gyan rework ‘Estimated Prophet’ using a series of drones, while Bryce Dessner takes transcribed fragments of a live Garcia guitar solo to create a whole new composition.

Grateful Dead in 1970

Grateful Dead in 1970 Photo: Supplied

The peak of the Dead’s own compositional ambitions came in 1977 with the second side of their album Terrapin Station. It’s a suite, composed by Garcia and the band’s lyricist Robert Hunter, as elaborately layered as anything in the catalogues of King Crimson or Yes. And it’s performed here in its seventeen-minute entirety – with full orchestration – by an ensemble that combines members of the National and Grizzly Bear.

If prog-rock epics aren’t to your taste, how about world music? Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab offer a version of ‘Franklin’s Tower’, picking up on the hints of African highlife that ran through the Dead’s Blues For Allah album.

While the Dessners can be heard behind the various guests on most of the 59 tracks, providing a solid continuity, a few acts, like Orchestra Baobab, have been left to their own devices. Wilco – who, in their broad embrace of everything from Americana to the avant-garde, resemble in some ways a modern-day Dead – weigh in with a concert recording of the Dead classic ‘St Stephen’; Courtney Barnett gives the Altamont memoir ‘New Speedway Boogie’ her patented slacker-trio treatment, while Marijuana Deathsquads attack the stoner anthem ‘Truckin’ with electronics.

And New Zealand’s own Ruban and Kody Nielson, as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, turn in a far more funky treatment of ‘Shakedown Street’ than the Dead ever managed.

The one time I actually saw the Dead in concert was in the early 80s, at the University of California Los Angeles. I went with a local who had seen the Dead dozens of times. When I asked him what I could expect, he said, as though he were quoting Desiderata: ‘Dead shows are like snowflakes. No two are the same.’

It was certainly unlike most other rock shows I’d seen. There was little fanfare as they shambled on stage; no costumes, none of the usual arena pyrotechnics. A couple of the band were actually wearing shorts. It was maybe half an hour into the set before I started to hear beautiful flurries of guitar notes cutting across the chords – Garcia, who had been keeping a low-profile to one side of the stage, seemed to have finally woken up.

In some ways this album resembles that show I saw, with all its peaks and a few troughs. Mumford and Sons massacre ‘Friend of the Devil’, one of my favourite Dead songs.

But perhaps more than anything, Day Of The Dead is a tribute to a spirit; a spirit in which the rootsiest folk songs and the most cosmic psychedelia exist on the same plane, and where the best things happen when there is room left for chance. Whether you are a paid-up-and-tie-dyed Deadhead or a complete novice, it would be hard to come away from these six hours of music without thinking how rare and noble that spirit is.

Songs featured: Touch Of Grey, Candyman, Loser, Terrapin Station, Franklin’s Tower, Shakedown Street, Truckin’, Morning Dew, Nightfall Of Diamonds, Gracia Counterpoint.

Day Of The Dead is available on 4AD Records.