Various Artists - Day of the Dead - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Various Artists - Day of the Dead

by Jeff Penczak Rating:7 Release Date:2016-05-21

Aside from jam bands and assorted Deadhead-inspired tribute or soundalike bands, one doesn’t necessarily think of The Grateful Dead as having a particularly strong influence on the independent music scene. But this nearly 60-track compilation may correct that misunderstanding, while adding new meaning to the term 'eclectic'. Ostensibly compiled and curated by The National’s Dessner brothers (who contribute about a half dozen tracks, including a live collaboration with Weir), this 5xCD/3-volume download/limited edition vinyl box set is the 20th charitable release (of original material) that the Red Hot Organization has overseen, with all profits going to fight AIDS-related illnesses.

With nearly five-and-a-half hours of music performed by over 60 artists (many, unique and occasionally surprising collaborations), there literally is something for everyone, and even if you hate the Dead (and the alt.country / Americana scene that most of these artists spring from), you still might consider picking up a copy to help the cause. All of these tracks are unique to this release, so completists of any of the acts involved will need a copy for that reason alone. Let’s take a look at some of my personal favourites.

The War On Drugs kicks things off with a snappy romp through one of the Dead’s late-period highlights, ‘Touch of Grey’, its anthemic lyric “I will survive” perfectly encapsulating the theme of the set. Moses Sumney and Jenny Lewis deliver a rousing ‘Cassidy’, but it’s too bad 4AD couldn’t get the rights to the definitive cover that Weir, Jonathan Wilson, and Jason Crosby performed at the Tamalpais Research Institute a few years back. Speaking of War On Drugs, former member Kurt Vile teams up with (and manages to keep) Dinosaur, Jr.’s J Mascis from mangling a fairly straightforward reading of Lesh’s ‘Box Of Rain’ the way he butchered ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’ on The Byrds otherwise essential Time Between tribute nearly 30 years ago.

Garcia’s eerie ‘To Lay Me Down’ benefits from an emotionally heart-rending collaboration between New Jersey folkie Sharon Van Etten and queer folk icon Perfume Genius; Mumford & Sons do a nice, dreamy ‘Friend Of The Devil’; the bubbly, soulful harmony pop of Lucius nicely deconstructs ‘Uncle John’s Band’ almost to the point of unrecognizability; Angel Olsen leads a glorious choral rendition of ‘Attics Of My Life’ that mirrors the original’s exquisite, gospel-inflected harmonies; Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s emotional vocals and piano accompaniment lift ‘If I Had The World To Give’ above the mundane morbid mess it could’ve become (he also rips off a nifty Garcia-style solo throughout ‘Bird Song’); and leave it to a Swede (Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth) to deliver the best spot-on Garcia impersonation on the dreamy, melancholic ‘Ship Of Fools’!

Other high-lights include an excerpt from ‘Dark Star’ (actually pretty faithful to the short studio version) from Cass McCombs and the one performer who actually leads a Dead tribute band, drummer Joe Russo (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Weir and Lesh’s Further, Gene Ween’s Band and Phish’s Trey Anastasio’s Band – pretty decent pedigree and a damn fine, hallucinogenic experience, as is the pair’s eponymously-named jam, ‘Nightfall of Diamonds’. Electronics whiz Tim Hecker continues the spaced-out druggy jamming section of the release with a floating ‘Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald’, itself a tribute to Oswald’s legendary “plunderphonics” morphing of over a hundred live recordings of ‘Dark Star’ into the two-hour, 2-disc Grayfolded compilation. (The song gets its title from the first disc, Transitive Axis.)

Lucinda Williams transforms ‘Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad’ into a snail-paced dirge, as if the road was paved with quicksand; you want reggae-fied Dead? Then groove to the zydeco beat of Bela Fleck’s ‘Help On The Way’ or the Caribbean-vibed arrangement of ‘Franklin’s Tower’ courtesy Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, true signs that the Dead’s music was universally loved and influential across genres and continents! The latter’s ‘Clementine Jam’, a smooth jazzy smoke ring featuring a dreamy sax line, tasty guitar licks, and that irresistable Caribbean swagger is even better!

     The beloved Walkmen reunite for a rousing ‘Ripple’; Richard Perry, Caroline Shaw, Little Scream, and Garth Hudson (and what sounds like an unidentified choir of many others) deliver a majestic, life-affirming ‘Brokedown Palace’; Hiss Golden Messenger brings shades of Dire Straits (with a tinge of vintage Dylan & The Band) to ‘Brown Eyed Women’; This Is The Kit (aka Kate Stables) is new to me, but her revelatory trad folk toetapper, ‘Jack-A-Roe’ had me digging up her rather brilliant back catalogue and fans of everyone from the Collins Sisters and Anne Briggs to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span are well advised to follow suit; a shit-kicking yee-haw goes out to the stomping, barnstorming hoedown ‘Dire Wolf’ courtesy Brooklyn’s (where else?) The Lone Bellow, and Stephen Malkmus (‘China Cat Sunflower’) and Ira Kaplan (‘Wharf Rat’) deliver the goods when it comes to the Dead’s most recogniseable trait – the endless jam, their two tracks lone lasting over 20 minutes without losing the plot (too often!).

The most purely psychedelic (verging on the hallucinatory) section of the collection continues with another reformed project, The Riley’s, whose ‘Estimated Prophet’ recalls the flickering guitar pyrotechnics of Vini Reilly (a coincidence, I’m sure!) and his post rock heroes, The Durutti Column. And another revelation is the European classical orchestral ensemble Stargaze, whose ‘What’s Become of The Baby?’ may pose more questions than it answers, not least of which is the farting elephant brass and that insane choral break that proves Garcia was right to suggest the key to enjoying the song (and possibly understanding it as well) is nitrous oxide. ‘Nuff said. But Vijay Iyer’s jazzy and reflective ‘King Solomon’s Marbles’ restores some semblance of order and sanity and could stand alone as a wonderfully enjoyable reflection of inner harmony, away from its more extravagant neighbours. God knows these Deadheads could use a little culture between bong hits! Last, but by no means least, I love French folk chanteuse Mina Tindle’s fresh take on ‘Rosemary’, which extracts the song’s intimacy and beauty from Garcia’s warbled vocal that sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a bong.

Not to rain anyone’s parade, but something this vast is going to have disappointments, some more glaring than others. Phosphoresent (aka Matthew Houck)’s ‘Sugaree’ is a by-the-numbers rush job (he does much better with ‘Standing On The Moon’), while My Morning Jacket’s Jim James takes the opposite approach and sleepwalks through ‘Candyman’, and while former Dead pianist Bruce Hornsby and a reunited DeYarmond Edison combine for a reverential reading of the eulogistic ‘Black Muddy River’, they abandon the song about halfway through for distracting sound effects, and aimless noodling that almost suggests they forgot what song they were playing.

It also would have been nice if Ed Droste and Little Joy’s Binki Shapiro could’ve added a little motion to the Garcia classic, ‘Loser’. This one’s flatter than a pancake. As is Bryce Dessner’s emulation (although it comes off as more of an immolation) of his hero’s guitar style, ‘Garcia Counterpoint’. Marijuana Deathsquads’ ‘Truckin’’ is one bad trip from beginning to end, an ungodly mess that’s an insult to the Dead’s memory and legacy that’s to be avoided at all costs; Local Natives manage to make ‘Stella Blue’ even more boring and aimlessly lost than the original and the Unknown Mortal Orchestra do what they do best – ruin a great little number (‘Shakedown Street’) by trying to turn it into something Prince would’ve dumped on us in his heyday. And every time Bill Callahan opens his mouth I can’t help hearing Stuart Staples’ voice emerge, and his mumbled ‘Easy Wind’ does nothing to change that (although it’s an improvement over Pig Pen’s original yelping).

The Dead’s repertoire seems endless, so it’s a pleasure to report there are very few duplicates amongst the submissions, and almost everyone resisted the temptation to descend into one of those dreadful “Drums>Space” segments that usually included half hour drum solos and always signaled time for a trip to the loo. Luckily, we’re limited to So Percussion and friends’ five minute diversion. And I could have done without Grizzly Bear and The National’s ill-advised attempt to recreate the interminable, side-long orchestrated prog snoozer, ‘Terrapin Station (Suite)’, seemingly dragging half of Brooklyn (including a local Youth Choir) down with them. Fucked Up are...and should not be allowed anywhere near this or any other release. I had hoped this godawful vomitosis nonsense had left the planet, but you’ll just have to hit the skip button to get to The Flaming Lips’ ‘Dark Star’, as looney and meandering as usual, but with an interesting electronic backdrop that steals a page (and a few rhythms) from an old Depeche Mode or OMD album (or maybe it’s A Flock of Seagulls; in the event, you catch my drift here)! So if puffy-shirted New Romantics revamping the Dead is your idea of a good time, by all means go for it.

The Dressners also seem to have given slots to half the bands in their adopted base of operations. This musical nepotism skews the album in an uncomfortable, Brooklyn-centric direction, lending the compilation a sameness that usually results from too much wading in the local musical gene pool. Casting a wider net to musical acts on the other side of the East River might have injected some much-needed variety. To wit, as far as I can tell, none of the participants at any of the Gathering Of The Vibes festivals, arguably the biggest Dead parties in the past 20 years since Garcia’s passing are on tap.

And even though a cursory glance at the contributor list reveals few household names, kudos to 4AD for green-lighting the project despite meager ROI expectations. To this end, the label surely had the fans’ purses in mind when affixing the reasonable price tags (although vinyl junkies will have to fork out £110 for the 10LP box set). So whether you’re an adventurous Deadhead or alt-country or Americana aficionado, Day of The Dead, despite a few reservations, will put a smile[y] on your face and some pep in your step, all the while knowing your purchase is going to a good cause rather than lining the pockets of fat cat capitalists.

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