The last 48 hours I have come across a number of recordings and videos on YouTube of Grateful Dead songs being performed by incredibly diverse people, from the Austin (TX) Ukelele Society and the Earl Grey School Choir offering beautiful renditions of “Ripple”, to Norah Jones giving a gorgeous version of “They Love Each Other” in Buenos Aires (so funny how she asks the audience before she does the tune, “Do any of you like the Grateful Dead?” and you get a relatively small smattering of applause and yips from the crowd – yet, after her delivery? Whew, the audience loved it).
Those examples are just from the past two days. There are so many more – even symphonic versions of Dead songs performed by the Russian Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony. It is truly remarkable how many different musicians from different eras, continents, and genres, play and love this music. Astounding.
Many have tried to answer the question, why are the Grateful Dead so popular? Why do they stand the test of time? For example, go on YouTube and listen to a recent GuitarTeacher video on “They Love Each Other” … that’s where I first heard Nora’s version. The GuitarTeacher certainly catches one big reason – the great lyricist Robert Hunter’s ability to tell amazing stories in his songs.
There are many others who have tried to explain the phenomena, in books, in interviews, in other forums, including the Dead themselves. John Mayer, who of course, joined Dead and Company about four or five years ago, has also tried to explain it and, without quoting him here, let’s just say that he makes it simple … It is all about the music.
The Dead, and lyricists Hunter and John Barlow who contributed so much to the Dead’s repertoire, wrote and performed so many incredible songs that it is sometimes too easy to play one of their lesser known numbers for someone not familiar with the band, and you get a reaction like this … “Who is that?” When you tell the listener, especially if they were REALLY listening, that it’s the Grateful Dead, you often get this stunned surprised look followed by, “I like that.”
So many folks who have been exposed to the Dead’s music have only heard them through their very rare diversions into Top 40 hitsville (the Dead were NEVER about making hits). Two of my best friends are fond of saying, for example, that “Truckin'” is the only Dead song they have ever heard. Others, I’ve heard it said, will say things like, “Do the Dead do any songs in less than 10 minutes?”, thinking that everything the band did was an improvisational excursion fueled by perpetual psychedelic consumption.
I think Bruce Hornsby (who was in the band for about two years) and Elvis Costello who loves the Dead, put it best when they said something like, “The Grateful Dead write and play great American music.” I could not agree more. The music and lyrics combine into an incomparable mix of amazing storytelling and spine-tingling sounds. They are indeed a band beyond description.
And, just so you know, I am not some sycophant who simply believes that everything the Dead did (or does) was/is a work of art. So, let me be emphatic. There were times, many times (Woodstock, for example!) when the Dead sucked. They readily admit it. I readily admit it. I can recall shows that I actually walked out of because the performance was so rotten.
But then, there were many more moments when something special happened and the experience, without any undue influence of substances, became aurally and physically spectacular beyond words. I have seen many many great bands perform (for example, the Rolling Stones in 1973, The Band multiple times in the early 70s, Talking Heads when they were at their peak, and many others) and loved them, but none … not one … hit me like the Grateful Dead when the Dead were on.
With all the crazy shit going on in the world today, thank goodness for the music of the Grateful Dead. For me and so many millions of others, it offers us a sense of something more than ourselves, in the form of beautiful music.
Do yourself a favor, listen to some Grateful Dead music. Search for the sound you may not have heard before. Hopefully, if you really listen, you will have nothing left to do but smile smile smile …
P.S. I did not post any links to the performances mentioned in this post. Go to YouTube and you can find them. In fact, you will probably find even more than I mentioned. It is worth the search … and, I ain’t often right but I’ve never been wrong …