Jesse McReynolds & Friends,
Songs of the Grateful Dead
(Woodstock, 2010)

Although the Grateful Dead were a rock band, Songs of the Grateful Dead is not a rock album. And, although Jesse McReynolds (with his late brother Jim) was a bluegrass musician, this is not a bluegrass album.

Subtitled "A Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter," most of the 13 cuts are songs the two wrote together. Only "Day by Day," a recent collaboration pairing by McReynolds and Hunter, has not appeared in an earlier version on a Dead record or a side project. Garcia, who died in August 1995, also performed bluegrass, folk, blues and country at various points in his career. These genres were among those that helped shape the Dead's overall sound. Hunter, the Dead's longtime lyricist, was also grounded in roots music. In his post-Dead career he's collaborated with the likes of Jim Lauderdale and Bob Dylan in songwriting that highlights vernacular influences.

Although my CD collection numbers in the thousands, the Dead are represented by precisely two albums, including -- as befits one whose tastes are broadly folk-centered -- the atypical, mostly acoustic and decidedly non-psychedelic American Beauty (1970). I might add that I once saw the Dead in performance, as one of perhaps half a dozen unstoned audience members among approximately 50,000 at Chicago's Soldier Field, and had a brief, amiable backstage chat with Garcia. That, in short, is the extent of my experience with the band.

I assume that the purpose of this CD is to capture the songs at their core, minus (for the most part anyway) rock rhythms, improvisation, feedback and electronica. The arrangements, which tend toward the spare and matter of fact, treat the songs as if they were more conventional country-folk material. Sometimes the lyrics vaguely echo traditional ones, for example in the affecting opener and perhaps most successful cut, "Black Muddy River," once covered -- remarkably and powerfully -- by British trad-folk master Norma Waterson.

I suspect that the intended audience is the hard-core, unrepentant Deadhead. As one who is not but who otherwise has nothing against the band, I can only say that Songs is pleasant and listenable without feeling outstanding or essential. Perhaps the problem is that the performances, while not bad (after all, these are all music professionals), are occasionally plodding, the mid-tempo melodies a tad repetitive.

Among the disc's pluses, on the other hand, McReynolds -- as those who know Jim & Jesse's bluegrass work are already aware -- is an affecting, expressive vocalist. It is a little disconcerting, though, to hear him singing more sophisticated, poetic lyrics than one recalls from previous recordings. Good as they were, Jim & Jesse's songs had words that taxed no one's intellect. Hunter, who wrote the Dead lyrics McReynolds is singing here, is a published poet and an intellectual. There is, of course, no reason McReynolds can't record or sing anything he feels like, but this listener sometimes gets the impression of a performer not quite in his element.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 January 2011

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