Tribute compilation for “grateful dead”: reviving deadhead feelings

With the 5-CD compilation "Day of The Dead" young pop musicians commemorate the Californian acid rock band "Grateful Dead".

No, that’s not bandleader Jerry GarcIa: a fan wants to help celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary Photo: imago/Zuma Press

4AD Records, of all things! One could read it as a not insignificant victory in the eternal culture war between hippies and punks, that now the label, which in its early days stood like no other for the counter-design of hippie music, for a British cool, calculated, conceptual artificiality instead of a Californian warm, spiritual earthiness relying on spontaneity, now releases an expansive compilation, which throws itself in the dust in deep humility before the work of the most archetypal of all hippie bands.

Three generations of musicians after Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins and Clan Of Xymox show today’s racehorses of the 4AD stable, first of all Barack Obama’s favorite band The National, whose masterminds, the brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, curated this compilation for the AIDS benefit organization Red Hot, as well as several other big players of the indie rock world on the 5-CD compilation "Day Of The Dead", show what high value they attach to the music of the Grateful Dead today.

The artistic heritage of the Grateful Dead has meanwhile split into two lines: On the one hand, there is a barely manageable number of "jam bands" in the U.S. that very successfully try to re-enact the ritual experience of a Grateful Dead live concert. On the other hand, the Dead’s original material still spins excellently, which is due to the band’s own label’s clever marketing ideas as much as to the seemingly inexhaustible archive and the still large amount of constantly growing Deadhead generations.

That’s what this compilation is all about: It presents a generation that didn’t get introduced to the Dead by cool older siblings anymore, but possibly by their parents or even teachers as an untouchable national treasure, who grew up when Deadhead-tum had already become a sect-like popular lifestyle option. The way it is treated in large parts is correspondingly cautious.

The ambition of the young

Thankfully, the jam band segment was left out, or rather the usual suspects were apparently simply not asked. Apparently this is a curatorial decision: the Dessner brothers were primarily concerned with songwriting, not the art of the guitar solo or free-form freak-out. The artful, thoughtful beat poetry of Robert Hunter, the author of most of the Dead lyrics, takes center stage in an unusual way; he might almost feel the most celebrated here. And rightly so, because the cool factor of the Dead is also due to the fact that they always had better lyrics than competitors like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe & The Fish or Moby Grape.

What is striking when listening to "Day Of The Dead" is the ambition of the young people to play their respective song "right", even if the arrangement deviates extremely far from the original design: When, for example, Local Natives approach the romantic ballad "Stella Blue" with samples, electronics, tempo changes and alienated vocals, they still see to it that they leave chords and melody untouched. The respectful cover version is usually not a great conceptual success, unless you can add your own position to a song in a natural way, so to speak, via individual vocal style, as the artists Angel Olsen ("Attics Of My Life") and Courtney Barnett ("New Speedway Boogie") do excellently here, for example. In any case, this approach is preferable to rewrites striving for originality, such as Mumford & Sons’ transformation of the great bluegrass throwback "Friend Of The Devil" into a ridiculous U2 Dolby Surround pathos epic with false chords.

The Band: Formed in 1965 by Jerry GarcIa, "PigPen" McKernan and Bob Weir, definitive psychedelic band of the hippie era, link between the beat poets of the ’50s and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture.

The music: Acid rock soon became folk and country. From jazz they had the will to improvise. They never played their signature song "Darkstar" in the same version.

Legend: Until the death of Jerry GarcIa, in 1995, the Dead toured constantly. Fans called "Deadheads" taped the concerts and released them as bootlegs.

Drugs: Grateful Dead participated in the first LSD tests, their concerts were structured like trips. Four of their keyboard players died. Jerry GarcIa also died of his addiction.

Otherwise, however, the ambitious projects are the winners: Anohni’s avant-garde orchestrated version of "Black Peter" is right at the front. The "Terrapin Station Suite" experiences its careful and astonishingly coherent transfer from prog rock into the canon of new music in the USA and back into the Americana world in a joint effort by The National and Grizzly Bear. Tim Hecker bows to the Canadian sound artist John Oswald, who also lent his sample art called "Plunderphonics" to the Dead on his 1994 album "Grayfolded: Transitive Axis" and assembled the ideal jam from tons of original recordings.

Carrying away the abstraction

The banjo player Bela Fleck, who is otherwise to be enjoyed with caution because he is close to New Age and fusion, manages to open up completely new spaces for a well-known song like "Help On The Way", although his interpretation is true to the score – albeit played on banjo, bass and tabla. Jerry GarcIa himself would probably have liked jazz musician Vijay Iyer’s solo piano version of "King Solomon’s Marbles" best, which exemplifies how a composition can be removed from itself and carried away into abstraction. By the way, there are guitar solos now and then, the most exciting ones coming not from Lee Ranaldo, but from the desert rockers Tal National from Niger.

It’s not the really expensive compilation: Except for Lucinda Williams and the Flaming Lips, the A-rate artists of the various genres are missing, the country scene is missing, Dylan, Willie Nelson or Wynton Marsalis might have taken up the topic in an interesting way. Gillian Welch would have been nice to hear. And the legendary disco excursion "Shakedown Street", on which the Unknown Mortal Orchestra does a decent job here, would actually have deserved an appreciation on the part of a representative of the international house or electronica aristocracy.

Various Artists: "Day of the Dead" (4AD, Beggars, Indigo)

But in 1991 there was already a Grateful Dead tribute album of the then leading generation: On "Deadicated" Elvis Costello, Jane’s Addiction, Suzanne Vega and the Cowboy Junkies were allowed to try their hand. If you disregard the outstanding "Bertha" version that Los Lobos contributed back then, the new generation cuts a better figure.