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):