Published May 18, 2016Jerry Garcia (possibly apocryphally) dubbed the post-war counterculture that he helped exemplify as "the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness." The once and future Captain Trips (so-named for his rock band's central role in a scene defined by LSD and spontaneous performativity), Garcia was always uncomfortable with definitions, structures and formal exercises.
If there was a common theme to the 30-year travelling road show that was the Grateful Dead, it was a basic refusal to conform to expectations. When you went to a show you got what you got. They played a different setlist every gig, and they improvised their parts right there on stage, trying new stuff out night after night, even while running through a basic blues-rock song that they'd performed 100 times.
In other words, from evening to evening any given song might be played one way or another, in mutable arrangements, at different tempos and with varying levels of conviction or improvisational verve. Some shows were dogs' breakfasts. Most concerts featured stumbles, errors, bad notes, strange communication breakdowns. But virtually all of their shows had at least one moment of musical convergence of rather startling beauty. Unlike most professional rock'n'roll bands of their (or any) era, the Grateful Dead were open to the idea that in daring to embrace the "plain old chaos," musicians could find those fleeting moments of transcendence.
All of which makes it a tough, and not always rewarding, proposition to cover a Grateful Dead song. Scraping away the essential live-ness of their messy sound to get at the core compositions beneath, too often bands have come up with utterly inessential, diminished, over-polished takes on tunes that, in the hands of the Dead, had been fascinating excursions. (See almost all of the snoozy 1991 tribute collection Deadicated.) And yet, here we are with a massive five-disc collection produced to benefit the Red Hot Organization, packed full of a dizzying clutch of artists willing to have a go at this deep catalogue.
Curated by dour alt-rock act (and noted Deadheads) the National, this five-and-a-half-hour marathon plays like an extended love letter rather than a compilation of reverent covers. Recorded over four years, weighing in at a remarkable 59 tracks and featuring several dozen artists across multiple genres, this is a gargantuan logistical feat by any measure. Playful, mostly inventive takes on these often complex songs abound, and while some of the stuff doesn't land (and a few of the tracks are abject failures), many of them are simply delightful.
Though the emphasis is clearly on the Garcia-sung material (Bob Weir and especially Pigpen numbers get short shrift), and the bias is toward bands in the "indie rock" vein, the collection does an admirable job of conveying the richness of the material while offering some fresh ways to experience the songs.
The standouts are many, but Courtney Barnett's haunted take on "New Speedway Boogie" (Garcia and writing partner Robert Hunter's attempt to reckon with the debacle at Altamont in 1969), the War on Drugs' dreamy "Touch of Grey," Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's appropriately joyous "Rueben and Cherise" and Charles Bradley's smoking reimagining of "Cumberland Blues" are top of the pile. Maybe most astonishing of all is ANOHNI and yMusic's deconstruction of "Black Peter," an experiment that results in the most moving and memorable exercise on the set.
I mean, ignore that "8" rating, probably. It's worthless when applied to a collection this vast, this incoherent, this inessential and, yet, this downright fun. If you're a longtime fan of the source material, you're bound to find some stuff here to amuse and intrigue you, but you'll still likely see this as a collection of throwaways, of generally inferior covers of your favourite songs. But if you don't know the Dead from a ham sandwich, you may well hear tunes on this collection that turn you toward exploring that chaotic, marvellous, maddening, singular American band. Proceed with caution. (4AD)