Last Friday, The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner released their 59-song compilation album paying tribute to the Grateful Dead. With a number of incredible and diverse musicians coming together for the project, Day Of The Dead serves as an enticing tribute to one of the most prolific and ubiquitous groups in all of music.
Of course, listening to the nearly-six hours worth of music is an intimidating feat, even for the most ambitious of fans. With a number of unfamiliar artists putting their unique spin on the Dead’s music, we spent some time listening through and picking out our favorites for your listening pleasure. Here are our top 10 tracks from Day Of The Dead; be sure to let us know what your favorites are too!
15. Drums -> Space – Man Forever & Sō Percussion and Oneida
One of the most unique aspects of any Grateful Dead concert was the “Drums > Space” improvisational section. Firmly cementing the uniqueness of their performances, this pure exploration is so fundamental to the Grateful Dead ethos. In that same vein, including a “Drums > Space” segment is an brilliant ode to the Grateful Dead. While it doesn’t necessarily have the most re-listen value as the entries listed below, this work of percussive madness shows the thoughtfulness that went into Day Of The Dead. There’s also something to be said for a recording that features an impressively climactic percussion jam, segueing into distortive feedback. That must have been fun to make in the studio!
14. Candyman – Jim James & Friends
This version of “Candyman” comes off as relatively straightforward on first listen, but the way in which the piece captures the somber essence of the song is quite electrifying. Vocals from My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James play a big part in that, as his haunting voice with a raw, grumbling tone adding to the mood. The backing organs and slide guitars only accentuate the longing notes of Jerry Garcia’s classic track from American Beauty. It’s well crafted music like this that helps Day Of The Dead become a fitting tribute to the Dead.
13. China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider – Stephen Malkmus
Rock and rollers Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks continue to turn heads with their live energy, and Malkmus’s strength as a frontman stems from his lengthy career fronting Pavement in the 90’s. Malkmus puts an almost-lounge feel to “China Cat,” matching vocal and guitar lines to a tee. The choice to perform one of the more complicated Grateful Dead originals, paired with its traditional counterpart, earns its place among our favorites. The group really lets the jam develop, spending patient minutes exploring new sonic realms before burning into “Rider.” Clocking in at over 10 minutes, Malkmus does the Dead justice with this great track.
12. Brown-Eyed Women – Hiss Golden Messenger
Another Garcia original, “Brown-Eyed Women” has an overarching longing quality that can’t be forced. Fortunately, folk artists Hiss Golden Messenger do a great job staying true to the classic, with rich harmonies accentuating Southern-twinged, Dylan-inspired vocals. Keeping the instrumentation light allows the song’s strong vocal melody to emerge, and the clean-toned electric guitar cuts through with the right proportions. Hiss Golden Messenger poured just the right amount of pep into a classic song, but it has the right amount of soul for a tune like “Brown Eyed Women.” Well done.
11. Touch Of Grey – The War On Drugs
The opening track from Day Of The Dead belongs to indie darlings The War On Drugs, who blew just about every listener away with their 2014 album, Lost In The Dream. It’s that same pop-oriented, dreamlike precision that the band applies to “Touch Of Grey,” transferring the main hook melody to the piano. Adam Granduciel’s vocals flutter through the recording, conveying the determined tone of Garcia’s lyrics. Substituting the guitar solo for a harmonica burst is an incredible choice, perfectly bringing an emotional edge to the bluesy pop interpretation. It’s tracks like this one that represent the heart and soul of The National’s vision for Day Of The Dead.
10. Me & My Uncle – The Lone Bellow
Leave it to The Lone Bellow to turn “Me & My Uncle” into the hoedown that it’s always deserved to be. Sure the song was originally written by John Phillips, but it was the Grateful Dead that really brought the song into the spotlight. Playing it hundreds of times with a full band, it’s nice to hear the song driven by an acoustic guitar and simple drum rhythm. The instrumentation gradually rises through the track, introducing organ, electric guitar, and vocal harmonies as the song – and its story – develops. The added instruments never betray the song’s driving drumming and acoustics, keeping the folk element very much alive throughout this great interpretation.
9. St. Stephen – Wilco w/ Bob Weir
The Day of The Dead box set has a unique feature that most tribute albums don’t include: an original member of the band being tributed. Bob Weir makes two appearances on the album, but we chose this one for his work with the group Wilco. The band certainly has some clout in the jam scene, and it’s easy to hear why on the track: Nels Cline. The man’s guitar playing is on point, taking fast-paced and melodic liberties in free sections while nailing the song’s written sections with ease. The cover itself is straightforward, with Weir’s contributions hard to distinguish on the live-show recording. Jeff Tweedy does a great job with the vocals.
8. Box Of Rain – Kurt Vile & The Violators, J Mascis
One of the Dead’s more emotional songs is this Phil Lesh-written tune, which comes to life unexpectedly when covered by Kurt Vile & The Violators. The interpretation captures the overall dreamlike quality of “Box Of Rain,” with Vile’s vocals echoing across the track. His guitarwork is absolutely sublime, nailing the song’s intention with ease. The cover is somehow both a piece of Grateful Dead lore and something all on its own.
7. Sugaree – Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends
Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis and more give us this delightfully upbeat rendition of “Sugaree,” adding a psychedelic pop element to contrast the Grateful Dead’s folky take on their song. Bringing the synth organs to the forefront, the cover gets a modern-day twist. Still, it’s the drumming backbeat that captures the original’s swinging contemplativeness. By capturing the song’s nostalgia and making it all their own, this version of “Sugaree” is sure to go down as one of the best.
6. Black Muddy River – Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison
Aside from Bob Weir’s contributions, another Grateful Dead member (albeit, unofficially) to make an appearance on Day Of The Dead is Bruce Hornsby. Perhaps no one else on the record is more qualified to tribute the band than Hornsby, having toured with them intermittently in the 90’s, and performed with them at Fare Thee Well. Still, Hornsby finds a unique voice on “Black Muddy River,” backed by a unique group composed of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), three members of Megafaun, and Field Report’s Christopher Porterfield. The song itself seems to be at an even-slower tempo than the Grateful Dead version, but the slowness doesn’t counteract the song’s emotional prowess. With delicately placed slide guitar and Hornsby’s yearning vocals, this is a delicate approach on “Black Muddy River,” but it works all the same.
5. New Speedway Boogie – Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett is taking the rock and roll world by storm, and this rendition of “New Speedway Boogie” is the perfect introduction to her style. Barnett’s wails with her defiant vocals and guitar licks, turning the song into a bona-fide stomping blues rock number. Barnett’s singing is very matter-of-fact, and she gets at the song’s strength with a no nonsense approach. Surely influenced by musicians like Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, Barnett’s nihilistic take on “New Speedway Boogie” is downright fun.
4. Cumberland Blues – Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band
When we saw the Screaming Eagle Of Soul himself, Charles Bradley, on the tracklist, we certainly were intrigued by his contribution. The modern soul legend hits “Cumberland Blues” with an unforeseen tenacity, essentially converting the song into an R&B ballad. By slowing the tempo and introducing a flute into the accompaniment and transferring some of the vocals into a backing chorus. Bradley’s take on “Cumberland” turns the song on its head; if you had heard this cover first, you might not believe that the original is a Grateful Dead song. Well done, Mr. Bradley.
3. Dark Star – The Flaming Lips
“Dark Star” is the perfect canvas for psychedelic rockers The Flaming Lips, and they certainly take the jam vehicle for a ride in this Day Of The Dead masterpiece. It gets weird, as the Lips introduce the song’s lyrics in an almost-operatic format. From there, the song delves into darker channels, with a heavily distorted guitar exploring the depths of atonal chaos. For a song called “Dark Star,” the work certainly brings out the darkness, but never in a way that renders it unlistenable. They toe the line between dark exploration and full on nonsense, and put their own unique spin on a classic.
2. Terrapin Station – Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear & The National (ft. Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette & Sō Percussion and Brooklyn Youth Chorus)
Not only is “Terrapin Station” one of the more challenging compositions in all of the Grateful Dead’s catalog, but The National is able to find their own voice on the 16-minute track. One of a handful of contributions from the indie rockers who created Day Of The Dead, “Terrapin” gets the nod on this list for its undeniable impressiveness. They add in a string section to really fill out the main sections of the song, then strip everything away after the climactic “Terrapin!” section, filling out the suite in ways unimagined and utilizing a percussion and full youth chorus to get the job done. With members of Grizzly Bear & more on board for the recording, this is a truly incredible piece of music that deserves a place in the heart of any Deadhead.
1. Help On The Way – Belá Fleck (w/ Franklin’s Towner – Orchestra Baobob)
The beauty of a tribute album is being able to reimagine classic songs in new and exciting ways. While a majority of the tracks listed accomplish that goal, it’s often hard to convert music from such a beloved band as the Grateful Dead into something both new and exciting. Many of the tracks succeed, some of them do not, but there’s no denying that virtuoso Belá Fleck has made something all his own on “Help On The Way.” The challenging composition is no match for Fleck’s technique. With an incredible collection of musicians, including Oliver Wood, Edgar Meyer, Zaakir Hussein and Abigail Washburn accompanying Fleck, this is an incredibly crafted work of music.
Just to bring it all home, the album segues from Fleck’s stripped down performance to a version of “Franklin’s Tower” played by the multi-ethnic Orchestra Baobob. The big production is filled with island charm, and the two pieces showcase the wide cultural effect that the Dead’s music has. It’s ultimately the reason that Day Of The Dead is such a successful album, as the Grateful Dead’s music continues to reach and inspire a new generation of listeners. Unlike past tribute albums, DOTD’s ambitious 59 tracks each captures a new aspect of the Grateful Dead approach, bringing a combination of parts new and old to the table.
Do yourself a favor and check out the album, here.