Sure, on paper it sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen: Irish/Celtic treatments of Grateful Dead songs? But it comes off a lot better than you might think. Remember, the Dead started out as a jug band outfit, and folk roots run deep. What Wake the Dead has done is to blend in a seamless mix traditional Irish instrumentals with classic tunes from the Dead catalog. One moment you are hearing “China Cat Sunflower,” and the next you are jigging to “Bank of Ireland.”
Two things help this mix work: Robert Hunter’s lyrics read like poetry, applicable anytime, any place. And in the absence of a drummer (there is hand percussion), Cindy Browne’s acoustic bass must carry the rhythm, which she does masterfully. Add accomplished instrumentation by Maureen Brennan (Celtic harp), Danny Carnahan (guitar, vocals), Kevin Carr (pipes, whistles, fiddle), Paul Kotapish (guitar) and Sylvia Herold’s exquisite vocals, and you have a wonderful meld of old and new. Dead touchstones, “Friend of the Devil,” “Bertha,” “Sugaree” and “Touch of Grey,” never sounded fresher. A musical feast for fans of Irish/Celtic and the Dead alike. If the closing track, “Row Jimmy” doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one.