Tag Archives: Robert Hunter

RIP Robert Hunter

So siloed are the Grateful Dead and the band’s fan subculture that, outside of their few classic-rock-radio staples, little of their music is heard by a mainstream audience, certainly in the UK. I can count the people I know who are into the band on the fingers of one hand, and one of those people is American and another one is me.

Consequently, the band’s accomplishments aren’t so much undervalued here as not recognised at all. Even serious musicians don’t know much about Jerry Garcia’s dazzling guitar playing. Even students of rock lyrics don’t know about Robert Hunter, how he could be cosmic, earthy, playful, poignant, allusive and elusive, all in one song. All in one verse sometimes.

If they knew, if they had heard, they’d know who we just lost is someone who should be held in the same esteem as anyone from the pop era, whether your hero is Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rakim or Nas. They might need to scrape a layer or two of crusty cynicism away first, to hear him properly, is all.

I’m not a lyrics guy, on the whole. As long as they’re not distractingly bad, I pay them little mind unless I hear something extraordinary. Hunter was that.

Robert Hunter died at his home on 23 September.

Stella Blue – Grateful Dead

I’ve written before about how much I love David Crosby‘s music. Several times before. In fact, in some of the earliest posts I wrote for this blog.

Not much has changed in that regard. It’s really difficult to sit down and with a guitar and a voice create music that sounds uniquely your own. It’s even harder to do that and have those results be pleasing. Crosby could do this. His musical territory is his alone: voice, tunes, chords, scat singing, sound, mood and atmosphere – all of them are his.

He has, though, one of the smallest bodies of work of any major musician, and of course, not all of it is on the level of his 1971 solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name and 1972’s Graham Nash David Crosby. So if you’re a Crosby fan and love what he does, where can you get it.

I’ve spent a long time looking for music that shares the Crosby mood, as it’s the mood above all else that is so singular. I have a playlist on my iPod called Hippie Acoustic Mystical Stoner Stuff. That distinctly non-pithy name is the best I can do to sum it up; I can’t encapsulate it any more briefly. To fit the bill, the music can’t be too discordant, irregular or messy (so despite the evident stoner credentials, stuff like the Incredible String Band doesn’t make it). It may have a medieval tinge to it, a bit of modalness. It may be questing, visionary, concerned with God and infinite. It may look inward for answers. Sometimes it can be sparse, sometimes lush. It’s often acoustic, but not always. It’s psychedelic but not in that carnivalesque way we often associate with psychedelia. In some ways it’s post-psychedelic – music for the comedown. It’s not colourful; it feels like dusk or twilight.

I’ve written about some of it here before: Linda Perhacs, Judee Sill, Pink Floyd tracks like Fearless, Echoes and Breathe, early Joni Mitchell, certain Fleetwood Mac tracks (oddly not always by the same author: Danny Kirwan, Peter Green, Lindsey Buckingham, Bob Welch and Stevie Nicks have all at different times tapped into that mystical mood).

Recently I’ve been obsessing over the Grateful Dead’s song Stella Blue, from 1973’s Wake of the Flood. It absolutely has that mood I love, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to those other artists mentioned above, to try to determine if there’s a common thread musically.

I’m not sure that it’s to do with any one aspect of the writing so much as it is a confluence of harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, subject matter and mood, but certainly Stella Blue seems to tick all the boxes. It’s slow 4/4, with languorous changes. It has an expansive melody and a poetic, albeit somewhat inscrutable, Robert Hunter lyric. The arrangement is detailed, but not cluttered.

Best of all, it’s absolutely gorgeous harmonically. After a brief descending intro, it finds its way to E major, which after the first line of the verse slides down to a delicate Emaj7, then to A7sus4 and A, with Jerry Garcia’s vocal melody reinforcing the high G at the top of that unstable A7sus4. Then something beautiful happens: it slips into the parallel minor and, instead of the expected E major, we get E minor, C7 and B7, with the vocal melody once again singing that strong seventh (B flat) in the C7 chord – appropriately enough on the line “a broken angel sings from a guitar”.

Stuff like this absolutely kills me. Pop music just doesn’t go to these sorts of harmonic places often, and jazz tends to work with different types of chords that don’t have the same feel to them or lend themselves to the same kind of melody. I’ve started making a Spotify playlist of this sort of stuff (retitled Mystical Folk Rock, as Spotify insists you try to make titles catchy), and will add more as the inspiration hits and/or I discover more music that fits the mood, but hopefully there’s enough here to start you down the path to mystic medieval hippiedom.

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.