TO CELEBRATE TOMORROW’S RELEASE OF OUR 33 1/3 ON WORKINGMAN’S DEAD, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF GRATEFUL DEAD WEEK BY AUTHOR BUZZ POOLE!
Covering the Grateful Dead has been its own cottage industry since before Jerry Garcia died in 1995. Back in 1991, Deadicated featured a cast of seemingly unusual suspects offering up their versions of Dead tunes, including Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Suzanne Vega, Burning Spear, and Midnight Oil. (How many of you even remember Midnight Oil?) The Zen Tricksters are probably the best known of bands that started off playing nothing but Dead tunes, and plenty of similar regional cover bands popped up after ‘95. One of my favorite groups not directly related to the Dead that came together to play this music post-Garcia was led by bass player Joe Gallant, who assembled a brassy, funky, loungy big band that tore through the albums Blues for Allah and Terrapin Station, breathing new life into the music while simultaneously scratching that itch of nostalgia.
Of course, playing other people’s songs is a fundamental part of making music, honoring the past in order to forge ahead into the future. The Dead basically started as a cover band, electrifying and drawing out traditionals and blues numbers, and included the work of Dylan and the Beatles from the ‘70s on. Even when inventing songs music is a never-ending process of remembering and reinterpreting.
Since 1995 the surviving members of the Dead – “the core four” – have played in numerous permutations, teaming up with countless musicians who appreciate this substantial body of work, from contemporaries like Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen to the prolific Ryan Adams, jazz guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell, singer Joan Osborne and, of course, the guys from Phish.
And now, there is Day of the Dead, a murderer’s row of indie rockers, along with others, paying tribute to the band, treating the songs as canonical. Spearheaded by The National and benefiting the AIDS awareness Red Hot Organization, Day of the Dead clocks in at over six hours, with contributions from Bonnie “Prince” Billie, Lucinda Williams, Tim Hecker, Orchestra Baobab, Angel Olsen – too many genuinely interesting artists to list here. It’s an exceptional compilation that supports an important cause, and the good people at 4AD were kind enough to let me preview it.
Word of this undertaking has been kicking around for a while; needless to say, basically everything about it piqued my curiosity. Once concrete details began to surface I couldn’t help but notice that with the exception of “Casey Jones” all of the songs on Workingman’s Dead are passed through the musical spectrums of others. I can’t say these are my favorite of the songs on this collection – some of those include Bela Fleck’s “Help on the Way” and Vijay Iyer’s “King Solomon’s Marbles,” to name but two – but I can say that Day of the Dead is an embarrassment of riches that would appeal to all sorts of music lovers even if these weren’t all Dead covers. But they are, and the fact that so many musicians agreed to participate in this project speaks volumes for the Grateful Dead’s place in American music.
“Uncle John’s Band”: There is one strumming acoustic guitar that briefly peeks out from this otherwise percussively synthesized affair. You can hear all the processing at work, from the drum machine tambourine hits to the eighties pastel choral singing of Luscious. The song’s arrangement doesn’t really stray from the original, it is just shaded very differently, making it sound like a club groove that very well could end up being used in an ad for smart watches. This isn’t a knock. The Dead were very much responding to the cultural milieu with Workingman’s Dead and this version of “Uncle John’s Band” sounds, appropriately, of our moment.
“High Time”: Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen owns this sparse song, leading it off with just a closely mic’d guitar, picking up the assertive strumming and his assured voice. Christopher Bear’s cymbal fanfare announces the movement into what sounds like a Grizzly Bear song with ethereal harmonizing and shimmering stacked instrumentation, including a watery pedal-steel that might as well be Garcia.
“Dire Wolf”: The pedal-steel from “High Time” spills over into this fireside ditty. The Lone Bellow and Friends are in familiar territory here, bulking out and twanging up this one in a way that is just as enjoyable as the Dead’s version.
“New Speedway Boogie”: Courtney Barnett’s acrobatic lyrics pulled me in as soon as I first heard “Avant Gardener.” I have no idea if the Dead infiltrated her musical radar in Melbourne. Her songs stand out with jagged post-punk edges and emo cynicism that stalks right into this song’s soberly reflective response to what went down at Altamont. The guitar here washes in and out with an Endless Summer surf vibe and some Doors darkness, which brings to my mind someone I know in California who once ran into Charles Manson on a beach, which is pretty much what this song is all about.
“Cumberland Blues”: Former James Brown impersonator Charles Bradley stands tall in the Daptone Records led neo-soul-blues revival. One old-timer heard this miner’s tale and thought for sure the Dead had stolen it from some early twentieth century Appalachian songster. But not so. The Dead just knew how to pay tribute to the past when crafting something new. This strut through “Cumberland Blues” respects that reverence for American roots music. Bradley and the Menahan Street Band work up the tune a la Muddy Waters’s “Tom Cat,” off the wha-wha warbling, fuzzed-out psychedelic blues of Electric Mud.
“Black Peter”: Anohni, formerly Antony, might have moved from England to San Francisco when she was young, but quivering over the classical layers of strings, oboe, and flute her voice lilts like an operatic English folk tune. The song’s lyrics set out the beautiful fragility of life and she hypnotically sings the sound of this reality we all share. It’s stunning.
“Easy Wind”: Bill Callahan’s troubadour croak delivery of this one makes it ambient, an ocean’s distance from the raunchy Pigpen blues that Robert Hunter wrote as an ode to Robert Johnson. In Dead lore the song takes on more than the laborer’s calloused indifference that he might live five more years if he takes his time for the reason that Pigpen would only be alive for a few more years. On Workingman’s Dead this is the only song that really benefited from having two drummers pounding away – they played it more barreling ahead Manifest Destiny than bayou. So the simplified rhythm of Callahan’s interpretation makes for a slow, swampy mood, the brush of the snare drum and phantom guitar and organ making for a mournful tip of the cowboy hat to the deceased.
“Casey Jones”: There is no “Casey Jones” on Day of the Dead – or “Scarlet Begonias” for that matter! One of the Dead’s more popular songs, it is possible that no one wanted to be perceived as glorifying drugs. But if you really listen, and know a thing or two about the American songbook, this anthem about a train and cocaine is a warning, not the advocacy of a lifestyle choice. More importantly, it’s an addition to an established history of songs about an actual train engineer, Luther “Casey” Jones. It would have been cool if Nick Cave had a go at it, though.