Aaron Dessner – songwriter and lead guitarist for the dark, gritty,Ohio-native band The National – has made a name for himself in the past few years as the studio engineer mastermind for Sharon Van Etten, Local Natives, Luluc, The Lone Bellow, This Is The Kit and most recently Frightened Rabbit. And as he’s working on Lisa Hannigan’s new album, he’s also had something else up his sleeve in the works with his brother Bryce.
Day Of The Dead is a 59 track tribute to the music of The Grateful Dead, produced by the guitarist brothers of The National and performed by The National & friends (featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Bruce Hornsby, Wilco, Flaming Lips, Jenny Lewis, Phosphorescent and many more). In 2009 the brothers released Dark Was The Night, a compilation of exclusive recordings from a large list of artists such as The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens and Spoon and raised over two million dollars for the Red Hot Organization’s AIDS charity. Day Of The Dead is their second contribution to this cause.
The first highlight on this compilation is Sugaree. The chemistry of the lead singer of Phosphorescent, Matthew Houck, and backing vocals of folk/pop/rock star Jenny Lewis, is an unmatched recipe for a upbeat, faster rocking version of this Grateful Dead classic. Houck provides eerily similar vocals to the former Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia. Jenny Lewis’ vocals also shine on a brilliant rendition of Cassidy, performed together with Moses Sumney.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & friends produce a grooving, soulful take of Rubin And Cherise, a classic and set highlight of many Grateful Dead concerts. The drums and bass thump are the driving factor of the song that force the dance moves out of listeners who aren’t even the first ones to bust out on the dance floor. Another highlight on this compilation is Bryce Dessner’s instrumental cover of Garcia Counterpoint, a beautiful guitar piece filled with loops and effects that really prove Dessner’s master skill set of the electric guitar.
Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band deliver the absolute funkiest rendition of Cumberland Blues, a leading candidate for the most unique and surprising cover on the entire compilation. With vocal chords blessed by the gods of soul, Charles Bradley belts out the blues immediately, “I can’t stay much longer…” The mix of the bass-driven funky dream beat and the sharp electric bass guitar thumps with the tender, glowing tones of the flute creates the most badass bluesy soul vibe.
Ever since the release of her latest record Bashed Out (which Dessner also produced), I have a major favouritism toward the beautifully calm yet uplifting vocals of Kate Stables and her band This Is The Kit. Jack-A-Roe is the perfect song for Kate Stables to cover because of its country/folk swing vibe and her banjo skills complete the package.
The compilation ends with a live cut of The National performing I Know You Rider with Bob Weir. Matt Berninger’s baritone, gritty, raw vocals mixed with Weir’s peppy, hippy rock vocals produce an interesting new spin on this Grateful Dead fan favourite song.
Trey Anastasio of Phish got tapped for the Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead Reunion shows last summer. John Mayer currently fills the void as wannabe Jerry in the latest project Dead & Company, but the Dessner brothers took the recording route and created a terrific tribute project, giving the musical world of The Grateful Dead a jolt of indie rock studio-production wizardry. While it’s impossible to give a thorough review a 59 track album without taking up the whole blog with one piece, I’ve noted my highlights. Go dig in.
Scott J. Herman