It’s interesting to me that there are any albums which pay tribute to the songs of the Grateful Dead. The Dead were not known for songs. They were the band of the long, free form jam. Deadheads reveled in the invention and magic created during what critics called “noodling”! Songs require structure and form. You might think that structure and form are concepts far outside the realm of improvisation, but the best improvisers require structure and form. It gives them something to hang their hat on. Whether in comedy or literature or music you require a solid base if you are planning on stretching beyond the limits. So, there are at least two collections of tributes to the songs of the Grateful Dead. These kings of free-form took off from a pretty solid foundation. The newest collection is called Stolen Roses and features an incredible cross section of Dead fans who each, in his/her own way, pays homage to San Francisco’s native sons.
The album begins with a sprightly bluegrass version of “Cumberland Blues” by the Cache Valley Drifters. Jerry Garcia spent his life fascinated with bluegrass. He started out as a bluegrass banjo picker, and ended his career playing something very near to that form with his good friend David Grisman. The Cache Valley Drifters play great! “High Times” follows, in a rendition from a stage adaptation of the Dead’s songs. The Grateful Dead on Broadway!! Just think. It’s about high school sweethearts, lost love, and rejection. Hunter’s lyrics fit the bill, and the “proscenium” presentation is… interesting.
The Pontiac Brothers’ “Brown-Eyed Woman” sounds quite Deadish, although they describe it as “the Stones doing Solomon Burke”. It’s more straight ahead, with guitar, bass and drums — and it rocks. “Friend of the Devil” is presented in a live version by Bob Dylan, with an uncredited back-up band. It’s a bit muddy, with Bob’s gruff new voice missing the delicacies of the melody, but you certainly get the idea of someone being chased by demons. Elvis Costello contributes a medley of “Ship of Fools/It Must Have Been the Roses” live and acoustic. It’s six minutes of Elvis moaning, and not a track you want to hear very often. The same is true of Patti Smith’s “Black Peter.” These three songs point to a weakness in the Dead’s material. There isn’t too much variation in the melody, and this leads to non-melodic singers (like Smith and Dylan) relying too much on their vocal gimmicks. Melody singers like the amazing Persuasions draw every bit of music out of “Black Muddy River”; and the David Grisman Quintet riff on “Dark Star” for ten minutes turning it inside out, taking it from raga to jazz, from bluegrass to cosmic zoom enhancing the tune. Sex Mob does an instrumental “Ripple” at a funeral pace, mellow, bluesy, slide trumpet, and string bass and a couple of subtle cellos. It’s beautiful. The Bobs perform “The Golden Road” in a bouncy a cappella version that’ll have you snappin’ your fingers and shufflin’ your feet.
The fascinating thing about this album is how the variety of styles work side by side. On the first Grateful Dead tribute album (Deadicated) it was basically rock groups doing Dead songs in rock formats. But here the songs are turned upside down, twisted and pulled inside out. These are performers who have been influenced by the Dead, and lived to tell about it. Joe Gallant and Illuminati turn in a neo-classical rendition of “Unbroken Chain”, all strings, horns and haunted vocals. Wartime with Henry Rollins gives almost eight minutes of “Franklin’s Tower” in a raw urban synth rendition with heavy swinging percussion and Rollins haunted “serial killer” whisper. Spooky!
Echoes of Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing come to the fore in Leftover Salmon’s “Past on the Mountain”, a solid version. Then Widespread Panic tip their collective hat with a punky “Cream Puff War”. Stolen Roses concludes with the ultimate tribute. The Grateful Dead half-time show! The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band race through a potent “Uncle John’s Band” and it’s all over! The Dead have left the building! It’s all over but the shouting! In fact the only thing missing from this collection is a fat lady singing.
And yet…it somehow suits the memory of the Grateful Dead. They have just issued a 12 volume box-set, following last year’s 5 disc set. Dead Records continue to issue “Dick’s Picks”, live recordings from thirty years of touring. And Arista Records remembers them this way, a grab bag of the famous and the unknown. Somehow I think Jerry would like it this way.
(Arista Records, 2000)