Release Date: May 20, 2016
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Few bands have enjoyed the kind of critical reappraisal now being afforded the Grateful Dead. Once reviled by critics and music snobs as a band prone mostly to aimless noodling, cooler heads have prevailed as their catalog is being reexamined through the lens of a variety of musicians and writers. You could say that the seeds of this reappraisal were sown in 1991 with the release of Deadicated, a Dead tribute album that brought together artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Los Lobos, Jane’s Addiction, and Burning Spear.
In the summer of 1987, MTV sent a bewildered VJ crew to report live from the long-rolling party taking place outside of Grateful Dead shows, this particular one manifesting at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Besides broadcasting the news of a massive tailgate onto nationwide cable systems, the station pumped the band’s “comeback” hit “Touch of Grey” a few times an hour. While the 22-year-old sextet was already capable of selling out Giants Stadium, MTV’s “Day of the Dead” report fully transubstantiated the Grateful Dead and the Deadheads from an underground phenomenon into a legitimate part of mainstream American culture, as much an '80s phenomenon as a '60s band.
My disdain for the Grateful Dead probably comes from ancient tribal suspicion. The punk-derived, alternative rock universe I grew up in generally shunned tie-dye. I have always loathed the Dead, with their bloated songs and sense of counter-cultural entitlement. There are so many superior bands to take heroin to.
2009’s Dark Was The Night benefit album for the HIV/AIDS charity Red Hot Organization was something of an anomaly among such compilations; whereas most collections of its ilk become a dumping ground for sketches, inessential live takes or ill-advised remixes, this one represented a collective raising of the bar from those involved. Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National managed to corral an impressive cast of US musicians coming into their stride (Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear), alongside some well-established but no less questing acts (David Bryne, Yo La Tengo, Sufjan Stevens), representing a watershed moment in American alternative music. How to top it? It’s unlikely that the brothers would have anticipated the follow-up project would be six years in the making and clock in at 59 songs, spanning 10 slabs of vinyl, but here it is.
Everything about Day of the Dead suggests that it long ago ceased being a fundraising exercise for the Aids charity Red Hot and turned into a painstaking labour of love. You can tell by its packaging, which is beautiful, and by the sleevenotes that gushingly attest to how obsessed its curators – the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner – are with the album’s subject: Grateful Dead. In among the stuff about the how the spirit of Jerry Garcia lives on and the impossibility of doing the band’s legacy justice, there’s a conversation with Dead guitarist Bob Weir: when he mentions that he likes the National, the Desser twins are left incredulous at receiving a compliment from their idol.
It’s not easy being a Deadhead in 2016. The Grateful Dead pushed a huge number of boundaries as they toured relentlessly across four decades, simultaneously carving out new forms of psychedelia and Americana - but then again they could also straight up suck, and Deadhead status is at times a hard to shoulder (let alone explain) burden. So the release of Day of the Dead is hugely welcome.
Jerry Garcia (possibly apocryphally) dubbed the post-war counterculture that he helped exemplify as "the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness. " The once and future Captain Trips (so-named for his rock band's central role in a scene defined by LSD and spontaneous performativity), Garcia was always uncomfortable with definitions, structures and formal exercises. If there was a common theme to the 30-year travelling road show that was the Grateful Dead, it was a basic refusal to conform to expectations.
The Grateful Dead were not known for their modesty so perhaps it's fitting that Day of the Dead, the 2016 tribute album assembled by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National for the Red Hot Organization, sprawls with abandon. At five-and-a-half hours, the 59-track album -- divided into three separate sets, like any good Grateful Dead concert -- is longer than any individual Dead show but it's not necessarily as far-reaching. The Dessners favor very specific traits within the Dead, eschewing folk, boogie, blues, and cowboy songs in favor of ever-expanding experimentalism.
Boasting a contributing artists list that looks like a who’s who of indie rock, Day of the Dead is a mostly successful attempt at sending up one of the most cherished groups in rock ‘n’ roll history. Seven years after their work as producers and contributors on 2009’s collaboration Dark Was the Night, Aaron and Bryce Dessner take on The Grateful Dead with this year’s album benefitting the Red Hot Organization. Despite the compilation’s 59 songs and many contributors, Day of the Dead remains cohesive while still allowing each individual artist’s unique voice a clear presence.
How to pay tribute to the group with perhaps the most obsessive, meticulous, and passionate fans in music history? Not to mention a group with a ludicrously expansive discography: Grateful Dead recorded 22 studio albums between 1967 and 1990, and put out more than 140 in total..
This five-plus hour, 59 track Grateful Dead tribute album is a monument of living history – an image of their golden road branching out endlessly. Curated by Brooklyn indie-rock luminaries the National, it conspicuously slights the Dead's jam-band progeny to stake out more interesting claims and find richer connections – like 67 year-soul man Charles Bradley teaming up with retro-soul horn crew Menahan Street Band to find the funk in "Cumberland Blues," or Aussie psych-pop outfit Unknown Mortal Ochestra blippily blissing out on the disco-era "Shakedown Street" or arty pop duo Lucius lovingly turning the eternal set-a-spell strum-along "Uncle John's Band" into pretty synth-pop, etc. etc.
Dropped amidst its subject's 50th anniversary, May's 5-CD Day of the Dead yields 59 contemporary takes on classic Grateful Dead. Curated and produced by the National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the set benefits the Red Hot organization for AIDS (revisit 1993 alt masterpiece No Alternative). Senegalese fusion outfit Orchestra Baobab, jazz banjoist Béla Fleck, and electronic noise wiz Tim Hecker stir the indie rock dominant roster, the War on Drugs opener "Touch of Grey" merging esteem with novelty while maintaining the single's skeleton and annexing the Philadelphians' own Knopfler-esque quirks.
The Grateful Dead typically is known for out-on-a-limb jams that were either loose or tight, depending on whom you ask. The band is less identified with the craft of songwriting, which is a damn shame, and which seems to be one of the prime inspirations behind this new 59-track tribute. It’s a sprawling showcase for an embarrassment of sturdily built songs, such as “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Dire Wolf,” and “Cassidy,” and most of them are hardy enough to shine through even the middling interpretations.