Download Central: Here’s why the new Grateful Dead tribute album is epic

  • Sanjoy Narayan
  • Updated: Jun 18, 2016 21:17 IST
Help on the way: The Grateful Dead celebrated its 50th anniversary a year ago with five sold-out concerts. But if you’ve missed out on the Dead, then Day of the Dead could be the album that finally introduces you to their music (Bettmann Archive)

It was near about the end of the 1990s. I was at home playing Deadicated , a Grateful Dead tribute album, which was then already eight or nine years old and had various artists covering the Dead’s songs.

Suzanne Vega had two – China Doll and Cassidy; the late Warren Zevon did Casey Jones; Dr. John had his version of Deal; there was Los Lobos doing Bertha; Elvis Costello on Ship of Fools; Jane’s Addiction with a super version of Ripple; and many others.

Anyway, the story is that while that album was spinning and the Indigo Girls, a folk-rocking duo, were singing their version of Uncle John’s Band, someone casually remarked: “What a great version!” It led to a small war.

Present among my guests was a diehard Deadhead. The sort that listens to 25 different recordings of Dark Star on a loop; the sort that remembers every time Bob Weir’s guitar was out of tune; the sort that will sit you down and launch into an intense monologue comparing the keyboard licks of the Dead’s various keyboardists – from Constanten to Godchaux to Mydland to Welnick to Hornsby.

To him, someone suggesting even innocuously that the Indigo Girls did a good job of a Dead song was akin to blasphemy. If I remember right, everyone was on different levels of elevation that evening and in such situations things often rapidly take unexpected turns. So before it degenerated into an outbreak of fisticuffs, we managed to placate both him and his provoker.

I remembered that narrowly averted brawl last month when another Dead tribute album dropped. The Day of the Dead is epic: a 5-CD set with 59 songs performed by contemporary artists. Produced by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Josh Kaufman, the album has Dead songs covered by musicians across panoply of genres. When I say panoply, I’m not exaggerating.

Friends of the devils: Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner (top) among others, the Day of the Dead compilation has British art pop’s Anohni (above, left) singing Black Peter and a stellar version of New Speedway Boogie by Australian Courtney Barnett (above, right) (Getty Images)

Check out British art pop’s Anohni sing Black Peter; or hear Australia’s Courtney Barnett as she turns in a stellar version of New Speedway Boogie; or Niger’s rambunctious desert band Tal National whip out their version of Eyes of the World; or Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s rendition of Rubin and Cherise . I could go on because I can’t think of any of the 59 songs on Day of the Dead that didn’t hit the spot for me.

And here’s the thing. A hardcore Deadhead friend called up to ungrudgingly tell me how he loved Matt Beninger’s (The National’s singer) cover of Morning Dew . And how Barnett’s New Speedway Boogie blew him away. Another pal, Deadhead of course, said he’d put the album on constant replay – all 325 minutes of it – and that he simply adored it.

Coming less than a year after the Grateful Dead celebrated its 50th anniversary with five sold-out concerts, the Day of the Dead is a project that no Deadhead can afford to miss. And for those who may have (incredibly) missed out on the Dead but are fans of indie bands across a swathe of genres, this could be the album that finally introduces them to the music of the Grateful Dead. Not an indie band fan? You dig jazz? Then check out Vijay Iyer, the jazz pianist and composer do a version of King Solomon’s Marbles on the album.

But if you ask me for my favourite tracks on the Day of the Dead, the list would have to include (besides Barnett’s and all the tracks by The National – they’ve done three), the Canadian hardcore punk band, Fucked Up’s version of Cream Puff War (how they tear it up on that one!); it would also have Minnesota noise band Marijuana Deathsquads’ experimental version of the Dead anthem, Truckin; and, not to forget, The Flaming Lips’ version of Dark Star.

The Day of the Dead is an album that most fans of the band should warm up to not only because the tracks are great but also because finally indie bands and artists are taking note of the Grateful Dead. As music website Pitchfork recently wrote: “After years of ignorance or closeted fandom, it seems that, as the Flaming Lips long ago prophesied, finally the punks are dropping acid.” That is probably a reference to the Flaming Lips’ compilation album from 2002, Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid. Just incidentally, that too was a great album.

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From HT Brunch, June 19, 2016

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