Now here’s a crazy thing – five (yes five) CDs full of modern music built on the shakiest of rock’s foundations, the works of the Grateful Dead. But, and here’s the weird bit, it works.
I have haphazardly spent perfectly good money over the years in search of the elusive charm of the Grateful Dead, the wobbliest, most out of tune of the original ‘60s hippie rock bands. Their ever-lasting fame seem based on the fact that they could make some of their meandering songs played in concert ramble on for several days without quite stopping.
The truth seemed to be that the band couldn’t figure out how to stop a song – after spending so long figuring out how to actually start it. Their lead guitarist Jerry Garcia had a certain quicksilver dazzle, but it was never quite enough to get me involved.
There was a double live album from 1971 (self-titled but known, for its cover art, as the Skull and Roses album) I’m still fond of, though I’d never play it with anyone in else in the house. On it, the band manages a splendid loping version of Not Fade Away that stretches for ten minutes without losing the plot. And there’s a marvellous mystical song called Wharf Rat.
And then, in the early ‘90s, came Deadicated, a rather good Grateful Dead tribute album featuring Dead songs done anew by the likes of Los Lobos, Susanne Vega, Lyle Lovett and even Burning Spear.
But that’s been that for me and loving the Grateful Dead, till now and Day of the Dead (4AD), which in truth is a quarter of a day of the Dead, delivering about six hours of modern music from an old and unlikely place.
The saving grace is, of course, that at the centre of all the Grateful’s Dead’s off-putting style were a lot of good songs – covering vast stylistic territory, from rootsy all the way through to symphonic touches of prog. And that turns to be just perfect for the crowd of (mostly) brilliant young pretenders who feature across the 59 songs on Day of the Dead.
The project – a fundraiser for AIDS/HIV – was managed by National guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who lead the house band on some of the tracks. The National are here too, but in a good way, especially on a powerful version of Morning Dew, a cover the Grateful Dead covered.
There are too many terrific moments to mention, but most special about this album set is the joy of drifting through such a vast ocean of music, much of it a wonderful surprise and only the very occasional stinker, like the unnecessary slaughter of Truckin’ by Marijuana Deathsquads and the dullness of Mumford and Sons’ Friend of the Devil.
But elsewhere, what wonders – Courtney Barnett’s slinky New Speedway Boogie, Bill Challahan whispering Easy Wind, Unknown Mortal Orchestra finding Prince in Shakedown Street Charles Bradley’s strutting Cumberland Blues and The Flaming Lips tuning into the cosmic via a monster bass line for the epic Dark Star.
And much much more, as there would be with such a welter of music in one nifty little box. With a fold-out poster, of course, and an emphasis on dreamy experimentalism.
If you’re going to let the Grateful Dead into your life, this is probably the moment. And if you shop around, you might find it for fifty bucks. Which is probably cheaper than acid these days.