Guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National never saw the Grateful Dead in concert. But when they were teenagers in Ohio at the turn of the Nineties, the twin brothers were Deadheads in every other way, immersed in their father’s Dead LPs and playing the tunes with childhood friend and future National drummer Bryan Devendorf. “We used to jam on ‘Eyes of the World’ for hours,” says Bryce, noting that Devendorf went to “lots of Dead shows” with his brother Scott, the National’s bassist. “The National are considered a post-punk band. But half the time,” on the tour-bus stereo, “it’s the Dead or New Order.”
That sums up a lot of the depth and sprawl on Day of the Dead, a 59-track Dead-covers anthology curated by the Dessners over the past five years, to be released on May 20th by the National’s label, 4AD, with proceeds going to the Red Hot Organization. The participating artists are an eclectic mob, covering songs from across the Dead’s 30 years on records and the stage. Current alt-rock stars on Day of the Dead include the War on Drugs (“Touch of Grey”), Australian sensation Courtney Barnett (“New Speedway Boogie”), Mumford & Sons (“Friend of the Devil”) and the Flaming Lips (the space-out “Dark Star”).
The Dessners, who appear on many tracks as part of a house band with the Devendorfs, also commissioned performances from minimalist composer Terry Riley, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and the Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab, which put an Afro-Cuban spin on “Franklin’s Tower.” There are striking collaborations across generations too: Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire does “Brokedown Palace” with the Band’s Garth Hudson, and the Dead’s Bob Weir appears with Wilco and the National on live tracks from 2013 and 2014.
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“Bob has been nothing but supportive,” Bryce says. The Dessners had already started thinking about a Dead tribute project when the National played with Weir in 2012 at a voter-registration benefit show. But “meeting Bob” brought out “the conversational, human side of that music,” adds Bryce. “We felt a certain blessing from him – and that helped us gain momentum.” In return, the National played on Weir’s new solo album, a record of cowboy songs.
Day of the Dead is a sequel to the Dessners’ 2009 Red Hot compilation, Dark Is the Night, which featured a similarly diverse cast exploring American folk and blues. Aaron and Bryce spent a year just thinking about how to cover the Dead before recording began in earnest, much of it in a pair of studios (both former churches) in upstate New York. “We listened to our favorite bootlegs of these songs before working on a version,” Aaron says. The twins, in turn, discovered that some contributors had serious – and surprising – Deadhead pasts. Aaron was shocked to find that Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan, who leads a quietly epic take on “Wharf Rat,” attended numerous Dead shows in the Seventies.
Ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, a teenage Deadhead who covers “Playing in the Band” with TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, admits he was “flabbergasted” when the Dessners, who turned 40 in April, approached him. “They’re at least a decade younger than me,” says Ranaldo. “I’m not used to seeing people at that age being interested in the Dead.” Ranaldo expects to see even more after Day of the Dead comes out. “A lot of people are going to be surprised at how great these songs are.”
Ultimately, Aaron confesses, Day of the Dead “was just an excuse for all of us to endlessly talk, joke and have fun” with the Dead canon and mythology, “in the same way we always did. It was a real joy.”