By Brian Ives
It’s appropriate that the Grateful Dead tribute album, which came out on Friday (May 20), seems overwhelmingly long. After all, this is a band who specialized in “long.” Their concerts were often lengthy collections of jams that could reach a half hour or more; the shows themselves often hit the three hour mark.
Day of the Dead, a 59 track tribute album to the band, is nearly five and half hours long. It’s a well-intentioned collection to re-contextualize the music of the Grateful Dead — long shunned by hipsters — as something that has, in fact, been pretty influential on indie rock. It’s notable that there aren’t really any bands who would fit into the “jam band” category here. The album was curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National and benefits the Red Hot Organization, an international organization dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. It’s a worthy charity to support for sure. But if you don’t feel like diving in to all 59 tracks, we did some heavy lifting for you, and chose the 10 highlights of the 3 CD set.
Jim James – “Candyman”: The My Morning Jacket frontman is one of the truest heirs to the Grateful Dead’s world of weird, warped Americana. He brings the perfect amount of restrained menace to the revenge-seeking title character when he sings “If I had a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to hell.”
Ed Droste and Binki Shapiro – “Loser”: Droste is the frontman for Brooklyn indie rock critical darlings Grizzly Bear, and the fact that he’s on this collection shows how much hipster trends have changed in recent years. Shapiro is formerly of Brazilian/American band Little Joy; their vocals sound haunted as they sing another violent lyric by the Dead’s Robert Hunter: “If I had a gun for every ace I have drawn/I could arm a town the size of Abilene/Don’t you push me baby/’Cause I’m all alone and you know I’m only in it for the gold.”
Perfume Genius and Sharon von Etten – “To Lay Me Down”: Perfume Genius is Seattle solo singer/songwriter Mike Hadreas, a guy who floored critics with his 2014 album Too Bright, and Von Etten is a similarly critically loved singer/songwriter from New Jersey. Together they bring a bit of soul to the Dead’s lament about a relationship that’s about to end.
Courtney Barnett – “New Speedway Boogie”: 2016 Best New Artist GRAMMY nominee Barnett has the perfect deadpan voice for this song, another one featuring the lyrics of Robert Hunter.
Lucius – “Uncle John’s Band”: The Brooklyn indie-pop band takes this acoustic classic and turns it on its ear, starting it out as if it was an electronic spaghetti western, and then stretching it into an more modern-sounding anthem.
Charles Bradley & Menahan Street Band – “Cumberland Blues”: If anyone here is qualified to sing the blues, it’s Bradley, who released his debut album in 2011, at 60 years old (one of his early bands broke up because his bandmates were drafted to serve in the Vietnam War). He’s also a guy who can do a good reinterpretation of a song: perhaps you’ve heard his cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes.” Here, he manages to take the Dead classic and make it more soulful and weirder.
The National – “Morning Dew”: A folk song that became a Dead standard. National singer Matt Berlinger brings a sense of dread and darkness to the song, which seems to take place after an apocalypse. This song has also been sung by Rod Stewart (in the Jeff Beck Group), Gregg Allman (with his brother Duane before they formed the Allman Brothers Band) and Robert Plant (on a solo album), and somehow Berlinger manages to put an interesting new spin on it.
Orchestra Baobab – “Franklin’s Tower”: The legendary African band from the ’70s (who reunited in the new millennium) brings a more celebratory sound to the tribute than most of the other bands. This also shows that the Dead’s influence extends far past America’s borders.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Shakedown Street”: The psychedelic and funky UMO were the perfect choice to take on the Dead’s disco-tinged classic and they don’t disappoint.
F—ed Up – “Cream Puff War”: The Canadian hardcore band put to rest the notion that punk rockers all hate the Grateful Dead. One has to wonder what Jerry Garcia would think of their interpretation of his song, but if you like punk and the Dead, it’s a hoot.