Dia de los Muertos usually falls at the end of October, but it comes early this year with the release of Day of the Dead, a five-CD, fifty-nine-track Grateful Dead tribute album that drops in May. Organized by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, the project’s proceeds will benefit the AIDS/HIV-fighting Red Hot Organization. But before even a single (legal) download occurs, the project has already yielded fruit in having reunited DeYarmond Edison, the early act of Justin Vernon (pre-Bon Iver) and Phil Cook, Brad Cook, and Joe Westerlund, before they became Megafaun.
DeYarmond Edison’s collaboration with Bruce Hornsby on “Black Muddy River,” just released, is stunning, finding a deep vein of sorrow in this uncelebrated tune and demonstrating the richness of the Garcia-Hunter songwriting alchemy.
Tribute records are nothing new, of course, but the sheer volume and variety of acts gathered for the Day of the Dead project has been getting buzz. And while it may seem to have come out of the blue, it’s been a long time coming. When the Cook brothers first met the Dessner brothers about six years ago, Aaron Dessner, spotting Brad’s Steal Your Face tattoo, mentioned that they’d been in discussions with the Dead family about a tribute record. But the wheels of Grateful Dead colossus turn slowly. It took three years or so before Brad Cook got the phone call that made it official, as well as the suggestion to collaborate with Bruce Hornsby on “Black Muddy River.” He and his old pals needed no convincing.
Does “Black Muddy River” not ring a bell? Tucked away on Side 2 of 1987’s In the Dark, it’s a poignant country amble that was easy to miss on an LP that led with the band’s biggest hit, “Touch of Grey.” Possibly the best known version comes from the Dead’s last concert, at Soldier Field in 1995, when a weary Garcia summons all the heart he can to deliver its poignant words.
Turns out, when DeYarmond Edison was a trio of Vernon and the Cook brothers, they played a version of “Black Muddy River,” based on Hornsby’s cover of the song from a 2000 live LP. It was a natural choice. All the music was done live in one take, except some harmonies and the tape sounds assembled by Joe Westerlund—a seamless fit that pays homage to the Dead’s experimental recording proclivities. The new version adds darker shadings, as well as a heavenly bit in the middle that fuses a touch of the Dead’s second-set space excursions with an almost Eno ambience. When the melody comes back, it tugs even harder.
It’s safe to say that for most kids growing up in the eighties, Bruce meant the Boss. But to the future members of DeYarmond Edison, Bruce meant one thing: Hornsby.
“We all, especially Justin, Phil, and I, bonded very early over Bruce Hornsby’s music. We all have the same sense of voicing, and a lot of that voicing comes from Hornsby,” he says. “Phil and Justin and I will all go to play a chord and just pull out the same notes, and I realized that we all grew up listening to Bruce.”
But being able to sing “Black Muddy River” struck a chord that went beyond connecting with a musical hero. It also meant something profound to resurrect a deep, overlooked song like “Black Muddy River,” one that was part of the band’s own past and possibly the perfect song for a group that’s been apart for a decade but never officially broken up.
“The general public loses [the Dead’s] moments of total earnestness, songs like ‘Attics of My Life’ and ‘Black Muddy River.’ The songs are really emotional from the Dead’s point of view,” says Brad. “We all played it really sensitively because we are really aware of the gravity of the situation. We’re somehow making this track with our hero, that we learned from him, about all of our favorite band. What the hell is going on? Let’s just close our eyes and enjoy it.”