Tag Archives: Pigpen

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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Day of the Dead, Disc One – some thoughts

Not a fan of either contemporary indie or the Grateful Dead? This series of posts may not be for you.

This week I’ve mainly been spending my time (or at least my music-listening time) on Day of the Dead, a 5-CD compilation of contemporary artists playing music by the Grateful Dead, organised and produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the National in aid of the Red Hot Organisation, a charity that raises money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS.

The Grateful Dead’s approach to music was wholly unlike that of most other rock bands. Sure, they could do brief and straightforward takes on their songs live in concert, but the idea that they’d go on stage and do every song exactly the way that it was on record (or almost the same but with a slightly longer solo) was anathema to them. Songs were simply vehicles for the guys to be what they were: a major nexus of American music, connecting folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and the contemporary avant garde. Their songs are hugely malleable, so the fun of a compilation like this is in seeing how all the artists involved approach the project (and guessing who are the deep fans and who’s in it for the prestige and PR).

Things get off to a strong start with the War on Drugs’s take on Touch of Grey, the Dead’s big MTV-era hit. Musically, Adam Granduciel ups the tempo by a couple of bpm and goes for that mix of mechanised-sounding live drums topped by exploratory guitar that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who connected with Under the Pressure or Disappearing from 2014’s Lost in the Dream. It’s great, and the song’s a fine vehicle for Granduciel’s signature sound, but that doesn’t stop his vocal impression of Bob Dylan being absurd.

Jim James plays Candyman straight, with a pretty evident love for the material. He transforms Garcia’s pedal steel solo into a heavily modulated fuzzathon, and sings the choruses with an audible grin. As ever, though, I could do without the omnipresent reverb haze he, along with so many bands, feels compelled to shroud his music in. I’ll never get what some people like so much about reverb.

Black Muddy River is a song from In the Dark, the same mid-1980s album that gave us Touch of Grey. On Day of the Dead, Bruce Hornsby (who played more than 100 shows with the Dead between 1988 and 1995, maintained a close musical connection with the surviving members after Garcia’s death and was part of the band when they did their farewell shows at Soldier Field in 2015) tackles the song with a specially reformed DeYarmond Edison, the group that split into Bon Iver, Megafaun and Field Report. Hornsby and (I assume) Justin Vernon sing the song beautifully, and the musicians (Hornsby most of all) play with a moving commitment and reverence. No one else involved in the record sounds as thrilled to be there and as determined to do right by the material.

Phosphorescent’s take on Sugaree, with a guesting Jenny Lewis, and the Lone Bellow’s Dire Wolf are both fine, but they both lack a little of the sly humour that is always inherent in Garcia’s delivery (a verse like “When I awoke the Dire Wolf, 600 pounds of sin, was standing at my window. All I said was ‘Come on in, But don’t murder me'” is darkly hilarious when Garcia sings it).

Morning Dew by the National sounds exactly like you’d expect. Matt Berninger’s doleful baritone is a good fit for such a bleak song. Courtney Barnett’s New Speedway Boogie has been overpraised, I think. The decision to recast half of the song in a minor key changes the melody and harmonies in a way that weakens it, though I’m sure the guys would salute the attempt to put a new spin on the song. More problematically, Barnett’s deadpan vocal takes all the fun out of the thing.

Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear does a good job with Loser, a hard song to get a handle on. Robert Hunter’s lyric is one of his most cynical and violent, and if a singer doesn’t commit to it, they’ll sound like a little boy playing at being a tough guy. Droste sings the song on the cusp of falsetto, yet I never doubt him. (That said, the song is called Loser, the implication being that for all his protestations, the guy has every chance of losing this time).

Anohni’s Black Peter, turned into orchestrated chamber music and given a typically tremulous reading, is weighed down by its own solemnity (again, the gallows humour of Garcia is missed), while Perfume Genius does an Art Garfunkel impression on To Lay Me Down. It’s as if he heard the title, asked himself where he’d heard the phrase “Lay Me Down” before, then decided to give the song the full Bridge Over Troubled Water treatment. As with Sugaree, the big-name backing singer, in this case Sharon Van Etten, doesn’t get to sing a verse. It probably would have improved matters.

Still, being as fair as I can, neither are big misses, and neither anger me. The big miss is of course Mumford & Sons’ horrific take on Friend of the Devil. Now, I wanted to like it. Honestly. I’d have been thrilled to like it, to have my preconceptions about Mumford challenged, maybe even overturned. Perhaps hearing them take on a beloved Grateful Dead song would allow me a way into their music? But no, it’s as awful as anything else they’ve ever done. I’m sure their presence sold a few more copies, and the money is going to charity, so I’m guessing that’s why they’re there. It can’t be because the Dessners like them. No one with working ears ever could.

So that’s Disc One. My picks are Black Muddy River, Touch of Grey, Loser and Candyman.

Back soon with Disc Two, where things get weird.

jerryJerry. Was he the greatest guitar player of his era? Very possibly.

Tennessee Jed (live) – Grateful Dead

In 1972 the Grateful Dead embarked on their (at the time) biggest-ever tour of Europe. It was their last major tour with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (he died in 1973) and their first with pianist Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna (whose first-ever studio session had been as a backing singer on Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman in Muscle Shoals). It was the only tour with Pigpen and Godchaux there in tandem.

The triple album that was compiled from the tour starts with a tremendous version of Cumberland Blues and doesn’t let up from there. It’s the Dead at the very top of their considerable game, Garcia audibly fired up by having a new player to spar with in Godchaux. The vocal harmonies that they’d begun to feature under the influence of CSNY*, so tentative on some of the Workingman’s Dead tracks, are now practised, even slick. The group is expansive while always sounding at ease with what they’re doing. The aching version of He’s Gone (written about Mickey Hart’s father Lenny, who took off with most of the band’s money) is one of my very favourites. The reading of China Cat Sunflower is likewise tremendous.

But the finest moment on the triple-album set is the version of Tennessee Jed that appears on side four of the triple album. Recorded in Paris, this is the definitive version of one of the era’s defining Grateful Dead songs. The group get so close to the spirit of The Band that may as well be The Band; it was no surprise when half a lifetime later Levon Helm covered it on his Electric Dirt album, the last record he ever made. It’s not merely a sonic impersonation either; the lyric mines the same surrealistic old-timey South that Robbie Robertson’s Band songs inhabited (I’m thinking of tracks like Caledonia Mission). Tennessee Jed was a character from an old radio show in the 1940s, sponsored by Tip-Top Bread (hence “When you get back you better butter my bread”).

With Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in their ranks, the Dead were a two-drummer band. But Hart didn’t travel to Europe in 1972, taking a break from the band after the business with his father. Kreutzmann, dare one say it, revelled in the freedom being the only drummer gave him. He only had his own feel to worry about; he could place the backbeat where he wanted it to go. He’s got a serious case of the funk on Tennessee Jed. Garcia, meanhile, has himself a tonne of fun with the chicken’-pickin’ groove, and fires off a great solo. Godchaux just sparkles.

The early 1970s (starting with Workingman’s Dead) is my favourite era of the Grateful Dead. All of my favourite Dead songs were written in this era, and I love how they reconciled the expansive, psychedelic side of the band with the, essentially, folk and country songs that filled up Workingman’s and American Beauty. The Europe ’72 live set is an indispensable document of this era, and Tennessee Jed is its most irresistible moment.

Dead
Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir

*Mickey Hart: “Stills lived with me for three months around the time of CSN’s first record and he and David Crosby really turned Jerry and Bobby onto the voice as the holy instrument. You know, ‘Hey, is this what a voice can do?’ That turned us away from pure improvisation and more toward songs.”