By: Emmett Robinson Smith –
The Grateful Dead’s legacy is undeniable. Their unwieldy amalgamation of disparate musical styles is somewhat overwhelming for those wishing to delve for the first time into the band’s catalogue, as they are one of the rare bands whose importance cannot be summed up with one song, concert, or album. Their importance is their sprawl; their eclecticism is their singularity.
Though the band’s vast range is inarguable, it makes it difficult to quantify their influence on subsequent artists. But Day of the Dead, the new Grateful Dead tribute album curated by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, proves that the Dead are very much alive in the music of many of today’s most important rock artists.
And the lineup is stacked. The War on Drugs, Perfume Genius, Courtney Barnett, Wilco, Anohni, Fucked Up, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kurt Vile, The Flaming Lips, The National, and many more appear on the sprawling disc, indicating that the the Dessner brothers intended to capture the same expansiveness that defined the Dead. The collection runs nearly six hours and includes 59 tracks, which is more than enough material to appease any Deadhead looking for a revitalized take on the band’s music. Indeed, there is no question that this collection is made by Dead fans for Dead fans.
It makes sense that the National provide many of the best contributions on the collection: their rendition of “Peggy-O” is nothing short of breathtaking. While the Dead take the old folk song and transform it to a warm, easygoing groove packed with understated guitar riffs and an understated piano part, The National utilize the slow-build technique they perfected on songs like “Fake Empire” and turn “Peggy-O” into a sweeping journey that imbues lines like “What would your mama think, pretty Peggy-O?” with a previously unexplored emotional heft.
On the other end of the spectrum, Vijay Iyer’s piano-only interpretation of “King Solomon’s Marbles,” a deep cut from the Dead’s 1975 album Blues for Allah, is an apt tribute to the virtuosity that made the Dead such a force over the course of their illustrious career. Iyer flips the spastic, guitar-driven tune into display not only of technical ease but of a deep understanding of timbre, harmony, and colour. Here, Iyer does justice to the all-star lineup of keyboardists that the Dead employed over the years.
Not all of the cuts on Day of the Dead come off quite as smoothly – such is the price for the seeking huge artistic diversity on a 59-track collection. Tunde Adebimpe, Lee Ranaldo & Friends’ cover of “Playing in the Band” is fine, but given the sheer artistry that many of the acts offer on Day of the Dead, it feels like the group here is simply going through the motions.
Ultimately, though, the mere fact that all these artists were able to unite their unique musical sensibilities under the Grateful Dead’s umbrella speaks only to the band’s legacy. Fans of any of the artists on Day of the Dead should take a look at their contributions here; the creativity with which this collection is brimming bolsters it from a mere “tribute album” to a large-scale union of many of today’s most essential artists. And that, too, is worth celebrating.
Essential Tracks: “Peggy-O”, “King Solomon’s Marbles”
Emmett Smith—great post about a fabulous group. Hope you don’t mind if I show you a post I did about a combination Dead/Big Brother/Quicksilver Winterland concert I saw November of 1967.