Inside The National’s Ambitious Grateful Dead Tribute Album

Mike Greenhaus on December 7, 2015

Aaron Dessner Is having what can only be described as a first-world Deadhead problem. It’s a late summer day, and The National guitarist and his bandmate/twin brother Bryce are almost done with the long rumored Grateful Dead tribute project that they’ve spent three years crafting—and much of their professional career preparing for. Now, the only question is: how to release it?

They’ve considered pressing a few carefully curated mini-albums, culled from the complete 70-plus song-set they’ll officially drop this spring. Aaron says that “the most Grateful Dead way” to offer the collection would be as an app—Bryce mentions that an interactive game might be the more fitting way to roll out the material. “I remember getting One from the Vault and the ‘Dick’s Picks’ releases and just studying them,” Aaron says, looking back on his teenage years as an aspiring musician and all-around music geek in suburban Cincinnati. “Nobody could play like Jerry Garcia— even if you thought you could or tried to emulate him.”

What’s been casually referred to as “The National’s Grateful Dead cover album” throughout the blogosphere has blossomed into something much more. It’s an all encompassing retrospective that not only includes the expected mix of indie-rock stars like Justin Vernon, Stephen Malkmus, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Will Oldham, The Tallest Man on Earth, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Cass McCombs, but also everyone from Afro-Cuban-Caribbean fusion outfit Orchestra Baobab to 80-year-old minimalist composer Terry Riley, classical ensemble yMusic, chamber-pop singer Antony, roots musicians who play in The Wood Brothers, jamband banjo legend Béla Fleck, soul powerhouse Charles Bradley and Furthur drummer Joe Russo, who also recently laid down tracks with members of The National for Bob Weir’s upcoming cowboy project. The album—which they hope to release on vinyl—also completes a circle that started back in 2012 when representatives from The National ventured out to Weir’s TRI Studios in Marin County to play a benefit show that connected the once-divided indie and jam communities in a way that felt akin to the laying of the First Transcontinental Railroad’s golden spike. (They managed to revive Weir’s “My Brother Esau” in the process, too.)

Though some artists recorded and submitted their covers remotely, the Dessners laid down almost half of the album’s tracks in a few Upstate New York churches with the help of a handpicked house band that included The National’s Bryan and Scott Devendorf and friends like Yellowbirds’ Josh Kaufman and Sam Cohen, The Walkmen’s Walter Martin and Takka Takka’s Conrad Doucette. (The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger appears on a few tracks, too, including a haunting take on “Peggy-O” that’s already entered their live sets.) Several guest vocalists and soloists also stopped by to jam during those sessions, channeling the collaborative spirit of both the Dead and The National’s many immersive projects. A few special selections, like “Dark Star,” get two takes by two different artists, while other corners of the record explore the Dead’s avant-garde side. “I don’t want to compare it to Bach—I feel like I’ll get shot—but there are just so many essentials,” says Bryce, who has a parallel career as a classical music composer and curator.

“The Dead’s music was essentially a blend of all these different things,” Aaron says. “There’s obviously a lot of theory not only in Phil Lesh’s playing but also in Bob Weir’s. There was a lot of modal stuff, and in a way, it had as much to do with jazz as it does with rock or roots music. We always thought that was really fascinating.”

A Blank Check

Aaron Dessner: The Grateful Dead was, literally, some of the first music that Bryce and I were exposed to and played. Scott and Bryan are equally, if not more, into the Grateful Dead, so it has always been in our music, in the ether. On a whim, we asked the head of Red Hot—the organization for whom we produce these charity records—if they would approach the Grateful Dead about a clearance. They came back and basically approved the entire catalog, which meant that we could put something deeply ambitious and expansive together. Because anyone who really listens to the Grateful Dead knows you can’t make a 10-, 20- or even a 30-song record and really cover it. And not long after that, Bob Weir invited The National out to his studio for a HeadCount event. It was our first personal interaction with him. All of a sudden, this closeness formed.

Bryce Dessner: The Dead’s audience cares about the band’s ethos as well as the songs, the people in their world and the musicians themselves. It was all about the community, cause and collaboration—and that’s all really fundamental to what our band is, too. This is the music we listened to before we went on our own path.

Grateful Gospel

BD: Our generation had its own music, but the Dead’s message is more universal. Their themes can be embraced by any era. That’s why it was important for us to not only get people like Lee or Ira, who grew up with this music, but also younger bands in their early 20s and people like Terry who predate the Dead. We included songs like “Rosemary” and “What’s Become of the Baby.” 

AD: Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s “Shakedown Street” is right on the nose, but we gave Lucius “Uncle John’s Band.” It was really powerful to see Ira and Lee bring such soul and care to their performances. For them, it’s not just learning a cover. It’s a musical gospel—getting into the fabric of the music in tangible ways. It’s made us come back to this music because, though we’ve always listened to the Dead, we’ve gotten away from it and gone on other musical journeys. The goal is to create a powerful, beautiful, charitable vehicle. 

Old Friends

AD: There’s a cohesiveness to the songs we recorded with our various comrades in these Upstate New York churches. So, at the heart of this record are more than 30 songs that were played in a very live way with this beautiful sound. We tried to capture this feel— these inspired performances by different vocalists and soloists playing with a group of people who have played together for many years. We tried to get other groups of people together who also had that kind of chemistry, so some sessions happened in Eau Claire, Wisc., where Justin Vernon has his studio and his group—his musicians—that he grew up with. They have a similar story to us.

America’s Most Popular Underground Band

BD:  The Dead were able to develop an American vernacular, a musical language that is deeply of this place and time. That’s something that we responded to—even how they were trying to use classical form and writing suites that let their songs take their own journeys. There is a long history of British bands taking American tropes and breaking these traditional forms down to make them as concise as possible. The Dead were searching for these deeper corners and people really responded to that. We’re trying to take the focus back to just how ambitious they were as musicians—and how it was about the music.

AD:  A lot of our song selections were based on what we know about [our collaborators] as musicians. We put together these little groups. We tried to go into some corners with “Mountains of the Moon,” and “Reuben And Cerise.” We used to joke about starting a Dead cover band with our friends from Grizzly Bear, so we have Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear and Ed Droste and some of us on the full “Terrapin” suite. Bryce added some orchestration to the song because it’s this ornate, baroque, progressive rock song. It’s a more serious undertaking than just jamming out.