Various Artists, “Day of the Dead”
Day of the Dead
For its twentieth edition in a series of fund-raising various-artist projects, the Red Hot Organization—an international charity devoted to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS—decided to go beyond the sounds of its past (acid jazz, indie rock, conscious rap, Tin Pan Alley) and go for the outright dead: The Grateful Dead, that is. As The Dead is broader and more immense than the American plains—the John Ford of psychedelia, if you will—Red Hot tapped Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the appropriately big-sounding The National to cobble together the acts that would aptly fill this five-CD set.
The Dessners have been down the Red Hot route before; their first compilation for the organization, 2009’s Dark Was the Night, was a dreamy date with its indie-art-pop cohort. Hearing the product of the Dessners’ goodwill, there is a sense of their pulling The Grateful Dead from the current populism of the jam movement without removing them completely from the hands of jam-jazz’s finest. Which is why sideline Dead guy Bruce Hornsby, glitter-jam guitarist Jim James, and jam genius Joe Russo all appear here—this is their mien, their fiefdom, dammit.
It’s important to start with the two tracks that an actual original Dead member— guitarist/singer Bob Weir—plays on: a live version of the Garcia/Lesh/Hunter classic “St. Stephen” with Wilco, and the grand traditional “I Know You Rider” with The National themselves. While “St. Stephen” allows Weir and Wilco a chance to stretch out with a prairie’s expanse on the biblical Aoxomoxoa track’s country-garden blues, the gospel-tinged “Rider” is an odd treat for an album closer, as it lends Weir’s weary voice a grandeur it’s rarely been provided with. If Weir is looking for collaborative gigs after this summer’s jaunt with John Mayer as Dead & Company, he could do worse than heading to the studio with Tweedy & Company. Unlike Dylan, who brought Wilco out with him as an opening act three summers ago, Weir could put them to better, more collaborative use; he’s already done so with The National, after all.
The event of Day of the Dead is as stretched out and exhausting as any Dead show once was under Jerry Garcia’s watchful, wonky gaze, and it’s (almost) impossible to review it all in one setting without taking as many bathroom breaks and bong hits. With that, it is to the Dessner brothers’ credit they didn’t push every participant to kick out the jam-rock vibe—nor did they deny their crew that view. Not every track or cover version works well. Mumford & Sons‘ hucklebuck-ing “Friend of the Devil” sounds like a Mumford & Sons song, so that’s a failing right there. Real Estate‘s “Here Comes Sunshine” could have used some rays. Bonnie “Prince” Billy‘s several shots at Dead grandeur fall flat. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks‘ long-ass take on “China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider” rides on for far too long.
Luckily, though, those are the fleeting few clunkers in the box. Early on in the package, Perfume Genius and Sharon Van Etten make “To Lay Me Down” sparkly, odd, and deadly (small “d”). Anohni and yMusic create a “Black Peter” that is spine-tingling and oceanic-ly fluid yet eerily intimate. Ryan Olson‘s Marijuana Deathsquads turn “Truckin’” into a testy electro-noise collage, not unlike what Vijay Iyer does to more quiet effect on Phil Lesh’s “King Solomon’s Marbles.“
The War on Drugs, meanwhile, manage to make the playful “Touch of Grey” greyer, yet not in an unappealingly inventive fashion. The Flaming Lips‘ take on “Dark Star” plays down the boogie of the original, only to play up a shimmering, spooked-out glamor to go with its star-gazy psychedelia. The blissful Orchestra Baobab tart up “Clementine Jam” with a kinky multi-Latin lilt. Rough-hewn R&B elder Charles Bradley and his Menahan Street Band dig up the grit below “Cumberland Blues” and sprinkle its rocky garden. Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and Lisa Hannigan make “Mountains of the Moon” so much more spacey than it was in The Dead’s hands, yet they blunt its energy by keeping the track short, sweet, and even poppy. Ranaldo does, however, stretch out in the company of TV on the Radio‘s Tunde Adebimpe for a jaunty, avant-jazzy “Playing in the Band.” Phosphorescent get several shots and make quite a show of their efforts: “Sugaree,” which co-stars Jenny Lewis, is the sweet-n-sourest song of the package.
The National, for their part, may have given The Dead’s signature hits away to their friends in a show of generosity and appreciation, but they kept some choice rarities—the pretty “Peggy-O,” the gently creepy “Morning Dew“—for themselves, perhaps to prove to us all how far they can wander from their own monolithic grandeur. Thanks to their freewheeling plotting, Day of the Dead is indeed that long strange trip that this music’s original Grateful fathers forever prattled on about, but it carries on down a road as golden as the one that lined the path to Emerald City, and as beat as any drive with Kerouac.