Day of the Dead, Disc Three – some thoughts

Pretty Peggy-O is a song that has been tortured beyond all endurance by Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. I speak as a fan of both Dylan and S&G, and so take no pleasure in bashing them, but really, both versions are intolerable: Dylan’s Woody Guthrie-isms on his 1962 reading are laughable, when not actually painful. S&G’s is just undescribably wet.  The Grateful Dead‘s interpretation of the song is superior in every way.

The National’s take on the Dead’s take doesn’t reach the same place theirs did, but it’s very nice all the same. Matt Berninger’s doleful croon suits the song well, and I like the picking at the start and the fact that the band resists the urge to inflate the song with a backbeat drum part, keeping it to pattering brushes instead (those big held piano chords on the changes are a National cliché, though. I guess they couldn’t help themselves).

Garcia Counterpoint is a piece by Bryce Dessner based on a transcription of a Garcia solo, to which he then gives a Steve Reich treatment. My patience for Reich (and minimalism generally) being zero, my patience for this is zero also. On and on it goes, for eight minutes. Yawn.

Terrapin Station is not your usual Grateful Dead song: a tightly composed 16-minute suite with orchestra and choir, it’s as epic and prog as the band ever got. It was not a text that lent itself to deconstruction or extended improvisation, and so, while they did play it live, they didn’t often play it in full, and it lost more in live performance through the lack of a choir and orchestra than the band could put back in instrumentally through guitar and keyboard solos. To this day, it divides fans; some think it among the best things the group ever did, and others dismiss it as overproduced and fundamentally un-Dead-like.

A pretty huge ensemble (nearly 50 muscians) tackle the song for Day of the Dead: it’s credited to Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear, the National, Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette, Sõ Percussion and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Terrapin Station is a big song, it flirts with pomposity in a way the Dead so rarely did, but I like it a lot, and I like this version, too; Rossen’s vocal is really good, the Dessners negotiate all the interlocking guitar parts perfectly and the ensemble drumming is great.

The key moment in Orchestra Baobab’s Clementine Jam comes when, having taken the opening of the track in waltz time (the Dead’s version is also waltz time, but OB make it super-explicit with a boom-tap-tap drum part), the band stop dead and recommence in 4/4, relocating the song from a delapidated San Francisco ballroom to a club in Dakar. The band’s playing is beautifully intricate, particularly the percussion in the 4/4 section, and the intimacy of the recording (compared to the big sound the National guys go for on most of the tracks) is a nice change. Definitely a keeper.

China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. OK. Cards on the table: I hated Pavement. Hated hated hated them. Malkmus has always rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t think he was funny. I didn’t think he was clever. All I heard was a band that couldn’t play worth a damn and that never had an interesting musical idea, and a songwriter and singer who couldn’t sing and who constructed a wall of abstract hipster bullshit around himself to make it appear like he didn’t care about anything or anyone. (There is an irony here: I’ve made several records with Yo Zushi, who’s a big Malkmus fan, and whose songs often have a Malkmus tinge. Yo’s are a lot better though.)

Of course, Malkmus stuck around in the longer term, so his commitment to indie rock can’t really be doubted, but old hates die hard and he’ll never be my guy. The sound of his voice just sets me on edge. So, I’m not in a good place to be objective about his band’s take on China Cat Sunflower. All I can say is this: it’s 10 minutes long, and I wish it wasn’t, it’s not got any of the lightness of touch I love in the Dead’s Europe ’72 version (or the Lyceum show from 26 May on the same tour) but I don’t hate it.

This is the Kit’s recording of Jack-a-Roe is lovely. Kate Stables’s voice is pure and beautiful, and the simple arrangement gives her voice (and whistling) space to shine. However, the recording does raise an interesting issue. Old folk songs were in the blood of the Grateful Dead, especially Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, but even when they were playing these songs in an acoustic setting (say, on Reckoning) the band couldn’t help but expand the songs and take them to new places, even if that was just a function of Jerry’s endlessly inventive soloing. This is the Kit’s take on Jack-a-Roe, while very good, doesn’t respond to the song as the Dead played it; it’s simply a reading of the source material as filtered through Joan Baez’s famous 1963 live recording. For all its quality, it’s perhaps not quite in the spirit of the album.

Bill Callahan’s Easy Wind and Ira Kaplan’s Wharf Rat are fairly similar pieces – deep-voiced talk-singing, with lots of echoey atmospherics. I’m not sure how seriously Callahan takes Easy Wind; his phrasing at times sounds like a parody of a bad jazz singer. Leaching all the energy that Pigpen brought to the song is at least an idea, but I’m not sure it’s a successful one. I much prefer Kaplan’s Wharf Rat. Now, even compared to Callahan or Kurt Wagner, Kaplan couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he approaches the song with a very winning sincerity, and the band’s patient performance is a lesson in restraint.

Lucinda Williams’s version of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad casts the song as a slow 6/8 country-soul ballad (the Dead usually did it in a brisk 4/4), which suits her cracked, aching voice perfectly; I’ve not been checking in with Williams much recently last, so the raggedness of her voice these days came as a bit of a shock.

It’s appropriate that Disc Three, so heavily touched by traditional folk music, ends with Sam Amidon’s And We Bid You Goodnight. It begins wistfully but soon builds, as more voices join in, to capture something of the same woozy celebratory feeling that the Dead imbued it with.

My keepers from Disc Three: Pretty Peggy-O, Terrapin Station, Jack-a-Roe, Wharf Rat, And We Bid You Goodnight.

bob-weir

Bob Weir with super-cool Gibson semi-acoustic

 

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One thought on “Day of the Dead, Disc Three – some thoughts

  1. Martin Campbell

    Dear Blogger
    Peggy O.
    I’ve been dying to tell someone. I was into the Dead 30 years or more, and British in Britain, a lonely place for a Deadhead after about 1972. When I was nine. It took me a long time to put two and two and two together and find out that I love folk, because what was shown me as folk was indescribably dreadful to my mind.
    So it took me about 30 years to find out that Peggy O is the Bonnie Lass of Fyvie O, a very well known Scots folk tune played by everyone and their dog in the folk/scot world.
    You can hear it by The Corries on youtube, I like this one

    and read about it in wikipedia

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bonnie_Lass_o%27_Fyvie

    I never knew of the Simon Garfunkel or Bob Dylan versions. I agree the S&G one belongs in a nursery rhyme collection. The Bob one I didnt listen long. But he’s looking for Fennario in the wrong country. He should gae to Inverness and ask for Fyvie-O.

    Go to the Corries then back to The National. They’ve got the right idea. They could do that in an Inverness bar…….it’s a folk song.

    And of course one verse seems to be from Cold Rain and Snow. Shows how these old songs went by oral tradition and metamorphosed.

    On the subject of old tunes crossing the water, may I recommend if it can be found, a cassette or twae of folk songs of the South Appalachians recorded by Englishwoman Maud Karpeles just after WW2. A beautiful artefact. I never took mine back to the library. King George crops up here and there. If you have on your American telly, if there’s space between the commercials and neo-liberal riots worried you won’t keep invading innocent countries better left alone, Sharpes Rifles, well try John Tams O’er the hills and far away. You can see John as a rifleman in the movies. I have a suspicion he was not long for this world at the time of the recording I put forward.

    Jerry would have a fine time surfing this stuff.

    While I’m at it. Brown Eyed Women. I used to like it. Then I didn’t. There I was Santa Clara in 2015 and it started up to huge noise of appreciation that brought a lump to my throat while I was thinking, I don’t enjoy this boring song. Because, as it turns out, the speed got increased sometime in the first half of the seventies and I rarely played the era at home. I like the 2015 one. Go back to 1972….it’s a different animal. I did love it, when 1972 was all I had.

    And as for ‘The night they drove old dixie down’, when I was a kid this was a Joan Baez number. After getting into Jerry’s ‘paramedics revive Jerry between notes’ renditions, well Joan seems to be in a competition to knock it out faster than anyone else. Enervating. Why the tearing hurry? Awful. Enough to give one a heart condition.

    Good to talk.

    Martin

    Reply

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