Tag Archives: Orchestra Baobab

Day of the Dead, Disc Four – some thoughts

It seems unfair – not in the right spirit – to attack a band for choosing to rearrange a Grateful Dead song and do something different with it musically. I can’t even say for sure that the Dead never played this particular song in a Dylan-does-barroom-reggae style themselves. I can only say that I hate the Walkmen’s version of Ripple that begins Disc Four of Day of the Dead. It sounds lazy and self-satisfied to me, in a way that nothing else on the compilation does. Even when I don’t like what an artist has done with a tune, I don’t doubt their good faith. The Walkmen sound like they’re snickering behind their hands. Seriously, fuck these guys.

Marijuana Deathsquads (great name, by the way) completely transform Truckin’. I’m not even sure what you’d call the end result. There’s free-jazz saxophone, synth bass, warped vocals, isolated drum hits, and a double-time electronic thrashcore wig-out at the end. It’s bizarre, but it’s pretty great (and shows up the Walkmen’s half-assed hack job even more).

I can see the thinking that led to the Flaming Lips being approached for Day of the Dead, but they don’t actually manage to do anything interesting with Dark Star. They replace the iconic riff with a bass groove and drum loop, feed Wayne Coyne’s voice through the inevitable oscillators and modulators, and pair the chorus melody with mock-grandiose tympani and Mellotron chords. The problem is that the whole thing is so inert. The essence of Dark Star is the real-time interaction between the instrumentalists. Which, in all fairness to the Flaming Lips, isn’t their thing. Having constructed a framework, they layer some sound effects on top, but the thing never really goes anywhere. It starts and, six minutes later, it ends.

Local Natives’ take on Stella Blue seems to have used some of the song’s spookier chord change as inspiration, at least for the first half of the song, which is built over a half-time, vaguely dubstep drum loop. Once the band start joining in, the influence of their producer – inevitably a Dessner, in this case Adam – becomes plainer, and while frankly the arrangement becomes less musically interesting at that point, the vocal harmonies are very cool. So in Siskel & Ebert fashion, it’s a thumbs up from me.

Shakedown Street is the oft-reviled Lowell George-produced Dead-go-disco track from 1977. Unknown Mortal Orchestra remake it essentially note for note. It’s fine, but it needn’t detain us long.

Franklin’s Tower is a much denser text than it first appears, at least if we grant primacy to Robert Hunter’s explicatory essay (DH Lawrence’s maxim to trust the tale, not the teller would counsel us not to give Hunter the last word on the song simply because he wrote it). What is certain is that the song changes drastically for an Anglophone audience when it’s placed in the hands of Orchestra Baobab and its original lyric is abandoned. The muscular precision and simultaneous playfulness of the music becomes the main thing, and what a thing it is.

Tal National’s Eyes of the World is similarly exuberant. Tal National are from Niger (indeed, they are apparently Niger’s most popular band) and while they retain Robert Hunter’s lyric and pretty much stick to the vocal melody Garcia sang on the Dead’s version, they reconfigure the song at its rhythmic base. Eyes of the World was recorded when Mickey Hart was on sabbatical from the band and Bill Kreutzmann was its only drummer. Kreutzmann’s style for the studio version was straightforward two-and-four rock, but live, with Hart also in attendance, the song could get more polyrhythmic. Whether Tal National heard any of these versions, I couldn’t say, but their interpretation of the song begins where the most expansive Dead versions leave off. Drummer Omar practically bursts out the speakers.

Béla Fleck is a name I’ve heard many times over the years, but I must confess to having spent most of my life in avoidance of banjos, so I’d not actually heard any of his music. It was actually a huge pleasure to get acquainted with Fleck’s playing through his cover of Help on the Way (like Franklin’s Tower, a track from 1975’s Blues for Allah). Fleck plays in a bewildering array of styles – bluegrass, jazz, contemporary classical, rock, folk and more besides – so he perhaps stands greater comparison to Jerry Garcia than any other musician involved in this project. There are amazing musicians on these discs, but none whose virtuosity extends through so many styles of music. The passage from 4.20-5.30 of the track has about the most impressive section of soloing on all five discs, and the support from Edgar Meyer on double bass (bowed and pizz) and Zaakir Hussein on tabla is first rate.

Terry Riley has a link with the Dead going back to the band’s beginnings. Before joining the Dead, Phil Lesh and keyboard player Tom Constanten had been in an improvisational group with Steve Reich – the same group that premiered Riley’s In C, widely cited as the first minimalist composition. Riley, along with his song Gyan (the pair are credited as the Rileys), reinterpret Bob Weir’s Estimated Prophet as a raga-like instrumental piece, dominated by Gyan’s guitar, played with heavy delay, and chanted vocals from Terry. While it dispenses with John Perry Barlow’s lyric (inspired by the element within the Dead’s audience who, having taken too much dope, would get messianic and hang around backstage to try to deliver their sermons), the Rileys’ take on Estimated Prophet does capture its heaviness and religiosity.

stargaze’s What’s Become of the Baby is pretty damn well fantastic, replacing Garcia’s heavily filtered and effect-laden voice on the original (how did they do it?) with doom-laden bowed double bass and spooky woodwinds. It’s by turns gorgeous and unbearably tense.

King Solomon’s Marbles, from Blues for Allah, is a showcase for Mickey Hart’s north African percussion and Garcia’s fluid soloing (with sterling support as ever from Lesh on bass). On Day of the Dead, pianist Vijay Iyer’s imaginative exploration of the tune incorporates Hart’s busy drumming patterns before going off on fast scalar and arpeggiated explorations of Garcia’s melody, occasionally slamming down powerful bass chords.

After a disc that’s dedicated mainly to the Dead’s experimental side – the Hart/Lesh axis, if you will – it’s something of a surprise to finish on Bonnie Prince Billy’s reading of If I Had the World to Give. The recording is spare (much sparser the Dead’s Shakedown Street recording), just Josh Kaufman’s piano and Will Oldham’s voice. In this setting, with Oldham’s tremulous voice, the song sounds much frailer and less McCartney-esque. It’s pretty, but it’s perhaps a little too on the nose as an ending, goes a little clumsily for the heartstrings.

My keepers from Disc Four are Truckin’, Stella Blue, Franklin’s Tower, Help on the Way and What’s Become of the Baby.

Some recent music to stream or download (pay what you want):

 

 

 

 

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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