An eclectic group of musicians including folk-rock icon Bob Dylan, singer/songwriters Patti Smith and Elvis Costello and punk veteran Henry Rollins has contributed versions of Grateful Dead songs to Stolen Roses, a compilation by "Grateful Dead Hour" radio host David Gans.
The new disc, which hit stores Aug. 8, is unlike the 1991 Dead tribute, Deadicated, in that most of the tracks are outtakes from the various artists' repertoires and recordings, not commissioned works.
"I have, for years, been wanting to gather together all of the Dead songs that have been recorded by people out there," said Gans, who also helped compile the lauded 1999 Dead retrospective So Many Roads. "The point was to gather together existing recordings ... the stuff that people did on their own. ... One of the things I wanted to get was versions of Grateful Dead songs that moved them in another direction."
While the Dead's legion of tie-dyed, patchouli-wearing followers upholds the band's frequent casting as an anachronism of 1960s counterculture, the iconic San Francisco group's influence on the rest of rock 'n' roll has come to light since it disbanded in 1995, following the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia. The far-flung mix of groups and styles represented on Stolen Roses highlights the Dead as strong songwriters and musicians' musicians.
Stolen Roses the title of which is a play on the unofficial title of a 1971 live Grateful Dead album works up Dead tunes in assorted flavors, including bluegrass, jazz, big-band orchestration, a capella vocalization and even a marching-band arrangement (the Stanford University Marching Band cover "Uncle John's Band"). Jam bands, for which the Dead were the standard-bearers, are represented by Widespread Panic and Leftover Salmon, the latter with a spoof of "Fire on the Mountain" titled "Pasta on the Mountain."
Dylan, who toured with the Dead in the 1980s and who has been touring with ex-Dead bassist Phil Lesh, allowed a live cut of his version of "Friend of the Devil" (RealAudio excerpt) to be included on the disc.
Timely, Spooky Tribute
The Patti Smith Band recorded their eerie take on the vintage 1970 Garcia tune "Black Peter" (RealAudio excerpt of Patti Smith Band version) on the very night Garcia died, in August 1995.
"We were in Electric Lady studios, recording our Gone Again record, and we had been very inspired by the Dead during that particular time and of course some of their sonic excursions are very much a part of our music," guitarist Lenny Kaye said. "On the evening of August 9, of course, we heard of Jerry Garcia's passing, and it seemed to throw a shadow over the recording session. So, rather than proceed with what we were doing, we proceeded to celebrate Jerry's movement from this dimension into the next by playing 'Black Peter.' And we all went out in the studio and recorded the version that you hear on this album. ... We had put Jerry's picture up on the wall of the control room, and we just played our tribute."
The track conveys melancholy with a country shuffle rhythm and spare, spontaneous arrangement. Guitarist Oliver Ray trades vocal lines with Smith, changing the lyrics only slightly to carry the weight of Garcia's death, on a song about dying.
"People they know, and the people they care/ That such a man could be gone," Smith sings. Ray moans, then Smith moans, leading into another lyrical rearrangement. "All of my friends came to see me last night / I was layin' on my bed and dyin'/ But the weather down here is fine."
"I'd like to play a Grateful Dead song for you," Costello tells his audience to introduce his live medley of "Ship of Fools" and the love ballad "It Must Have Been the Roses." Some in the crowd laugh, apparently thinking the announcement a joke, before Costello strums through a delicate interweaving of the two tunes.
"We were definitely fans of the Grateful Dead," outspoken ex-Black Flag singer Henry Rollins said. "I saw them a few times, and they were one of the best rock shows ever. Amazing rhythm section and the songs were great. On a good night, they were as good as anything out there. They were always on the road, like me. I respect any band that's out there hitting it more often than not."
Rollins' side project, Wartime, featuring Rollins Band bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Sim Cain, recorded "Franklin's Tower" for a 1987 EP.
"Our concept was basically industrial-strength go-go music, the hard-hitting groove stuff out of Washington D.C.," Rollins said. "We thought 'Franklin's Tower' could really sound cool with this kind of treatment. ... I like the message of the song; it's inspiring and righteous. I don't know if we did it justice, but we meant well."
The song opens with spooky, reversed lyrics, then oozes into funky, wah-wah-drenched guitar crunch. Rollins whispers the lyrics with an ominous bent over Weiss' fuzzed-out bassline and Cain's polyrhythmic drumming. Chainsaw guitar and slap-pop bass drive the tune further out into a looser jam, layered with industrial-strength samples.
The disc ranges further into the sublime with an acoustic, gypsy-flavored take on the improv vehicle "Dark Star," by frequent Garcia collaborator and mandolinist David Grisman and the David Grisman Quintet, and an orchestral version of "Unbroken Chain" by Joe Gallant and Illuminati.
Aside from the wide array of styles, the project already has taken the Dead's music to new places a capella soul group the Persuasions' take on "Black Muddy River" (RealAudio excerpt) led to yet another project with Gans Might as Well: The Persuasions Sing the Grateful Dead, due this fall.
Stolen Roses track listing:
"Cumberland Blues"; Cache Valley Drifters
"High Time"; Original cast recording from the premiere of the stage play "Cumberland Blues"
"Brown-Eyed Women"; The Pontiac Brothers
"Friend of the Devil"; Bob Dylan
"Ship of Fools/It Must Have Been the Roses"; Elvis Costello
"Black Peter"; Patti Smith Band
"Black Muddy River"; The Persuasions
"Dark Star"; David Grisman Quintet
"Ripple"; Sex Mob
"The Golden Road"; The Bobs
"Unbroken Chain"; Joe Gallant and Illuminati
"Franklin's Tower"; Wartime featuring Henry Rollins
"Pasta on the Mountain"; Leftover Salmon
"Cream Puff War"; Widespread Panic
"Uncle John's Band"; Stanford University Marching Band