ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
May 28, 2016
I'm certain that I've never played a Grateful Dead song on Routes & Branches. Of the roughly 30,000 songs on my laptop, there is not one Dead recording, and of the couple thousand CDs in my basement Jerry ain't on one of them. That said, I appreciate the group's influence and recognize that it runs shamelessly through much of the music we enjoy. And that recognition has carried me through all 5 discs of the new tribute compilation Day of the Dead. Lovingly assembled over the past 4 years by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, it's the most impressive and sprawling tribute to a single artist since Amnesty International's 4 disc Chimes of Freedom nod to Dylan. Good News: I won't review the box cut-by-cut, but rather have pared down the mammoth collection to a single, 15 song compilation of highlights. The more successful covers don't try too hard to either escape or to replicate the Dead's sound, choosing instead to meet the icons halfway.
Because it is a compilation, and because Lucinda Williams wanders her way onto just about every compilation, Lucinda appears here with a bluesy rag on "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad", guitars blazing appropriately. Keeping with the blues theme, Charles Bradley teams with his friends from the Menahan Street Band for a fiery and dark "Cumberland Blues". The National pare it way back for an unexpectedly folky "Peggy-O", with Aaron Dessner delivering a tender and patient vocal. Acoustic guitar and piano ride atop a mounting wave of ambiance.
Given the space of 5 discs, there are bound to be both deeper cuts and Dead standards, with the latter posing more of a challenge to avoiding the danger of a bar band cover. Currently on hiatus, the Walkmen play it loose and jangling in the spirit of the Dead, their "Ripple" providing one of the collection's more ready sing-a-long moments. Bonnie "Prince" Billy earns a pair of cuts on Day of the Dead, including a stellar run through "Rubin and Cherise". He replicates the song's chiming guitar and adds heralding mariachi horns as the track progresses, topped off with a perfect pocket vocal. I've embraced Angel Olsen's first couple records of vulnerable indie folk. Her run through the lesser known "Attics of My Life" is built upon little more than angelic choral vocals and brushed drums. Bill Callahan takes a similarly sparse approach for his "Easy Wind". His trademark deadpan delivery floats along a druggy blues vibe of keys and guitars like a desert mirage.
Phosphorescent's sweet "Sugaree" falls closest to the musical tree, with Matt Houck's creaky croon sounding like a young Jerry. One of a handful of cuts featuring Jenny Lewis, it's the kind of upbeat joyfest that the Dead did well. Surprisingly, Kurt Vile's "Box of Rain" with J. Mascis also follows the original's blueprint faithfully. While Vile applies his trademark wall of noise production, the familiar melody of the original is allowed to shine through brightly. The guitars and vocals on Hiss Golden Messenger's "Brown Eyed Women" are a reverent tribute to the trademarked Dead sound.
Wrapping up my 15-song playlist, Tallest Man On Earth takes a slow cruise on "Ship of Fools", with added horns and lazy rhythms adding to the conjecture that the boat will be departing from New Orleans. A second offering from Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "Bird Song", confirms that Will Oldham is deeply familiar with the jazz nods inherent in the Dead's music. Phosphorescent's "Standing On the Moon" is an understated but gorgeously atmospheric flight. The final two cuts are a couple of the set's most unexpected surprises. Lone Bellow digs into "Dire Wolf" with shared male/female vocals and a heavier approach than they've brought to their own music. Most impressive is current indie sweetheart Courtney Barnett's bluesy rock drive through "New Speedway Boogie".
The Grateful Dead's musical sandbox was deeply informed by american roots music, though the offerings on Day of the Dead greatly overflow your standard R&B faire. Does the box set lead me to a greater appreciation of the band's catalog? Naw. I wouldn't have had the attention span to sit through 326 minutes of the originals. I seem to have more patience for these Dead covers (and I think this is the case for Dylan tributes as well). There's less filler than you might expect here, though it wouldn't have been a struggle to narrow down to 2 or 3 discs of the strongest material. Nevertheless, it speaks well for the Dessner's tribute that a non-Deadhead like me can eagerly travel through the entire set and exit without signs of musical indigestion.
A number of weeks ago I posted about leaving my post as KRFC's Music Director. As of June 1, that will have become a reality. One of my foremost concerns about making the split was how it might effect my relationship with music. I was also wondering if I would have the same generous availability to new music that I've had over the years as MD. For the time being I'll continue to broadcast my weekly Routes & Branches program from the KRFC studios, but it's a bittersweet parting in some ways. The most welcome challenge may just be how I'm able to use some of the newly freed headspace that I hope to gain from simplifying - it will be the first time in recent memory that I will be down to just one single paying job.
- Mando Saenz, "Pocket of Red" Bucket (Carnival, 08)
- Rob Baird, "Pocket Change" Wrong Side of the River (Hard Luck, 16)
- Bonnie Bishop, "Too Late" Ain't Who I Was (Plan BB, 16)
- Sam Lewis, "Southern Greek Tragedy" Sam Lewis (Lewis, 12)
- Chris Stapleton, "Feel So Bad" The Big E (MPI, 13)
- Luke Bell, "All Blue" Luke Bell (Thirty Tigers, 16)
- Fruit Bats, "Absolute Loser" Absolute Loser (Easy Sound, 16)
- Felice Brothers, "Dancing On the Wing" Life in the Dark (Yep Roc, 16)
- Esme Patterson, "Wantin' Ain't Getting" We Were Wild (Grand Jury, 16)
- Case/lang/Veirs, "Best Kept Secret" Case/lang/veirs (Anti, 16)
- Eli "Paperboy" Reed, "Hold Out" My Way Home (Yep Roc, 16)
- Shaver, "If I Give My Soul" Tramp On Your Street (Volcano, 93)
- Sara Watkins, "Truth Won't Set Us Free" Young In All the Wrong Ways (New West, 16)
- Jeremy Nail, "My Mountain" My Mountain (Open Nine, 16)
- Green On Red, "Broken Radio" Here Come the Snakes (Restless, 93)
- Guy Clark, "I Don't Love You Much Do I" Boats To Build (Elektra, 92)
- Lori McKenna, "Wreck You" Bird & the Rifle (McKenna, 16)
- Loretta Lynn, "Who's Gonna Miss Me" Full Circle (Sony, 16)
- John Moreland, "American Flags in Black & White" High On Tulsa Heat (Old Omens, 15)
- Avett Brothers, "Divorce Separation Blues" True Sadness (Republic, 16)
^ Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "Rubin and Cherise" Day of the Dead (4AD, 16)
- Frankie Lee, "Where Do We Belong" American Dreamer (Loose, 16) D
- Matt Haeck, "Lucky Cigarette" Late Bloomer (Blaster, 16) D
- Colvin & Earle, "Come What May" Colvin & Earle (Concord, 16)
- Elizabeth Cook, "Straightjacket Love" Exodus of Venus (Thirty Tigers, 16)
- Left Lane Cruiser, "The Pusher" Beck in Black (Alive Naturalsound, 16) D
- Drive-by Truckers, "Rebels" Fine Print (New West, 09)