This five-plus hour, 59 track Grateful Dead tribute album is a monument of living history – an image of their golden road branching out endlessly. Curated by Brooklyn indie-rock luminaries the National, it conspicuously slights the Dead’s jam-band progeny to stake out more interesting claims and find richer connections – like 67 year-soul man Charles Bradley teaming up with retro-soul horn crew Menahan Street Band to find the funk in “Cumberland Blues,” or Aussie psych-pop outfit Unknown Mortal Ochestra blippily blissing out on the disco-era “Shakedown Street” or arty pop duo Lucius lovingly turning the eternal set-a-spell strum-along “Uncle John’s Band” into pretty synth-pop, etc. etc. etc. Listening to it all you can’t help but be amazed that there was a time not long ago when people who didn’t know better still derisively associated the Grateful Dead with a specific Sixties-holdover hippie culture. A set like this helps lay that cliché even deeper under the peat.
Pretty much every sound the band touched on or suggested gets represented – from ambient music (several sound-sculptures by Bryce Dessner of the National and experimental composer Tim Hacker’s “Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald”) to Afropop (Orchestra Baobob turning “Franklin’s Tower” into a shining desert mirage) to psychedelia (Flaming Lips making throbbing lysergic mush out of “Dark Star”) to roots rock (Lucinda Williams locating the lust in a slow humid “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”). But indie songwriters and guitar nerds get most of the action; Courtney Barnett hazily savors the conversational drift of the post-Altamont rap session “New Speedway Boogie,” and Stephen Malkmus does his hey-whatever guitar wizard thing on a ten minute “China Cat Sunflower → I Know You Rider,” just to pick two of the more wonderful examples among many.
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There are wonderful moments of generational community (like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver joining one-time Dead tour keyboardist Bruce Hornsby on an elegiacally downhome version of 1987’s “Black Muddy River,” or Bob Weir himself appearing on live tracks with Wilco and the National). More often, the inheritors get to rewrite the past in ways you gotta love: ever wonder what the Jerry Garcia solo gem “Rubin & Cherise” might sound like without the original’s goofy Seventies keyboard sound? Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy gracefully answers with an arrangement that joins luminous organ, Crescent City horn flares and painterly guitar shimmer. Other artists go deep and wide on the Dead’s major theme –. i.e. the terror and danger that underpins the American promise even at its most wide-eyed –stripping away the sunny prettiness of some of the originals to reveal the darker core. The National goth up the post-apocalyptic “Morning Dew,” transgender club-pop vocalist Anohni gives us one gorgeously gossamer “Black Peter,” and Sharon Van Etten and Perfume Genius turn a duet on “To Lay Me Down” into a statuesque slow dance. The best moment along these lines might be Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Friends slowing down the already heavy “Wharf Rat” into ten minutes that feels like a year’s worth of hanging around down by the docks staring at your rotting shoes while you warm yourself by a burn barrel wondering what the hell happened to your life. Were these really songs that tripping-balls high school kids once batted beach balls around to in football stadiums?
Of course, along with darkening, there’s loads of lightening too: Kurt Vile and J. Mascis take “Box of Rain,” a song about mortality, and do it like they’re floating above us on a cloud of high-octane kush. Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis and Friends turn “Sugaree” from a forlorn boogie fare-the-well into a slightly less forlorn ‘hey, maybe I’ll see you down the road.’
What emerges is a beautiful crosscutting conversation – about life and death, the ways we recover the past and honor it and remake it to suit our needs, community as a fraying security blanket we cling to during the high times around Uncle John’s campfire and deep in night when we feel Black Peter casting his side-eye our way. Nice work everybody. Now let’s get crackin’ on that five hour Cure tribute.