Everything about the Grateful Dead is larger than life. The grass-root Americana icons didn’t have fans; they had Deadheads — unwavering groupies whose cult-like antics have become just as celebrated as the group’s music. The Dead didn’t play concerts; they played drug-fueled groove marathons featuring psychedelic-folk mastery. The Grateful Dead’s history has become inexorably intertwined into music lore, and even today, just the name “Grateful Dead” conjures far more than then just music, but an entire movement, one with both far-reaching cultural and musical impacts.
While the idea of the Grateful Dead has become a bit dusty over time, and the “peace and love” mantra is admittedly a little trite, it was by no means chance that the unlikely group of happy-go-lucky groovsters found worldwide success and transcended the confines of the psychedelic hippie era during their extended life as a band.
Born under the creative prowess of singer/songwriter Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead combined elements of bluegrass, folk and jazz into an amalgam of free-spirited positivity. But it was the Dead’s other-worldly live show that sealed the group’s fate to music immortality. With 10 live albums to boot and hundreds of hours of archival footage, fans of all ages have the opportunity to get a glimpse into the “Deadhead” experience.
True to the Grateful Dead’s larger-than-life identity, the long-time-coming Grateful Dead tribute album “Day of the Dead” is beginning to take shape with epic proportions. According to the curators of the long-anticipated tribute, The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the album will be released May 20 and all proceeds will benefit Red Hot Organization, a not-for-profit dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture. The album is set to feature 59 different covers, pulling from a wide range of acts including Perfume Genius, Lucius, Anohni, Wilco, Local Natives, Real Estate and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, among many others. (For a full list of artists and their respective covers, as well as more information on the compilation, check out the digital booklet here.) In total, the album is expecting to run a whopping 326 minutes.
Despite the May release date, college-age Deadheads fear not. As you quiver in your tie-dye shirts and purple-tinted sunglasses, shunning the thought of the inevitably-daunting finals week, bound to wreak havoc on the psyche, the Dessners and Co. have provided a bit of respite. A superb five-track preview to “Day of the Dead” is now available to stream, and it features an impressive list of talent, covering a short assortment of some of the Dead’s classics.
The preview appropriately begins with the Grateful Dead’s only single to crack the Top 40, “Touch of Grey,” covered by The War on Drugs. “Touch of Grey” was the first track to indoctrinate me, like many others, into the wild world of the Grateful Dead. Accessible and poppy, “Touch of Grey” manages to maintain the Dead’s jam band aesthetic while highlighting the group’s mastery of harmonies. Even better, the track immediately establishes the tribute album’s worth.
While the tendency in covers is to simply gloss over the original track and add nothing to the interpretation, The War on Drugs shun this notion with their version of “Touch of Grey.” Front man Adam Granduciel’s sullen vocals behind the reverbed guitar and jingling synths mix tenderly into poignant reflection on original track. The remaining four tracks build off the opening song, each adding new perspectives to classics covered, featuring Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends (“Sugaree”), Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison (“Black Muddy River”), Courtney Barnett (“New Speedway Boogie”) and The National (“Morning Dew”).
While the album will be released in a five-disc box set, digital download and in a limited edition vinyl box set, those lucky enough to attend the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival will witness the only scheduled live performance of “Day of the Dead.” Eaux Claires, curated by “Day of the Dead” contributors Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner, boasts an impressive lineup, featuring many other contributors to the album who will likely lend a hand in the live “Day of the Dead” performance.
Whether you were raised in a Volkswagen bus, or are completely new to the Dead, be sure to check out “Day of the Dead.”