Preparing for this past weekend’s “Day of the Dead” concert – the all-star band rendition of The National-lead Grateful Dead tribute album of the same name at Bon Iver’s Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin – I interviewed a handful of involved artists and kept asking a question that no one knew exactly what to do with. My question: “Given the legacy of the Dead as a live band, what is going to be different about playing these covers live, as opposed to recording them for a tribute album?”
After a thoughtful silence that may have been tinged with a little bit of puzzlement, everyone said something about it being a terrific opportunity to harness the additional energy of having a live crowd.
“No [it’s not going to be harder],” Megafaun’s Phil Cook told me, “mostly because people are just stoked as shit to hear a Dead cover. Whenever people in the audience recognize it, they just lose their shit. They’re so happy that you’re doing it. It’s a completely welcome enterprise.”
Speaking just a few hours before taking the stage, Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius framed the concert in the context of the very eager crowd awaiting them. “[The thing I am looking forward to is] connecting with the crowd, feeding off the energy of other people who are there to listen to live music,” Wolfe said. “I think playing covers you feel like an audience member too. The people in the audience that are singing along to the song, you feel like just that too – except you happen to be the one on stage.”
Laessig expanded on that, referencing a collaborative cover of The Band that they had done earlier that day with Mavis Staples. “When you sing ‘The Weight’ with Mavis, you kind of like step outside yourself for a moment,” she said. “Or it’s just an out of body experience.”
Though the fan video above is rough – Eaux Claires is likely to release an official, much more professional copy at some point – much of what Laessig is getting at comes through. Watching this performance as an audience member myself, I realized I cared more about the original song than I thought, in part because I realized I had been misunderstanding the original for years. In other words, the performance did all of the things that great covers can do, invoking the song’s history while existing in a brand new moment. In the same way that I heard The Band while listening to Mavis and Lucius sing it, I will forever hear Mavis and Lucius when I re-listen to the original.
In the day or so since this performance, I’ve been thinking about the differences between my reaction to this cover and my positive though much more subdued responses to the performance of Grateful Dead covers billed as Day of the Dead. These differences have helped me figure out why I was so interested in that confusing question about the live legacy of the Dead in the first place.
That question I kept asking likely stemmed from my day job as a professor of Renaissance literature interested in historical performance practices. There is a movement in the theatre world (sometimes referred to as Original Practices) in which companies attempt to use early modern practices in order to approximate the way a London theatergoer might have seen Shakespeare 400 years ago. One of the challenges for makers of this sort of theatre is that, no matter what we do to recreate the practices of early modern playing companies, we can’t recreate the elements of ephemeral performance that have to do with audience practices. We don’t know how an early modern audience watched theater and we can’t replicate the experience of seeing 16 different plays, for example, by the same company in January of 1596. Likewise, we don’t know how an audience would conflate the adjacent performances of two roles played by the same actor, or how much events happening in Ireland would be on the mind of audiences of Henry V.
All of this is to say that what I was really asking performers probably boiled down to a much simpler question: will it be possible to have a Grateful Dead concert without a Grateful Dead audience? The answer is no.
— wdpiper (@wdpiper) August 14, 2016
“Cassidy,” featuring Moses Sumney, Jenny Lewis, and The National.
The Eaux Claires audience – and it really is as pro-music of a crowd as one will find – is not an audience of Deadheads. Most of the audience simply doesn’t have the context to fully understand the Vietnam-era imagery of “Standing on the Moon.” In fact, most of the performers didn’t either. Lucius’s Jess Wolfe, like many of the performers on Day of the Dead, said their involvement stemmed more from the project than their feelings about the band itself. “It’s kind of like whatever you were brought up with,” she said. “You were either introduced to it as a kid or you weren’t.”
Of course most of the audience that had lost their minds for that “Weight” cover earlier in the day also weren’t historically prepared for that either. Part of the difference in reaction might have to do with the fact that Mavis Staples provided historical gravitas. However, I think the difference can really be explained by what contexts and knowledge we, as an audience, did have.
Despite confirmation that the covers were, as Phil Cook said, welcomed by the audience, the energy surrounding the set didn’t have us losing our collective shit because we didn’t have the moment of surprise recognition that he described. There was no surprise. We had expectations, knowing the recent tribute album that inspired the concert, and they were met. These expectations worked against the magic of hearing a cover in the wild though; because we had months with the album to prepare – and reasons to do so because of the popularity of the National – it is entirely possible that an audience member could have been able to sing every word without ever having heard the actual Grateful Dead.
“Birdsong,” featuring Bonnie “Prince” Billy and The National.
As such, the tribute was much more about about Eaux Claires itself and the collaborative, music-first environment cultivated by the festival than it was the Dead. The crowd was excited about the parade of indie-rock stars, and excited to sing along for what they had prepared to sing along to. However, the combination of an audience more interested in the artists than the material, artists at least as interested in working with peers they respect for a good cause as they were in the Grateful Dead, and a lineup of artists that dictated a strict song-by-song schedule, created a Dead tribute very much at crossed purposes with the free-wheeling, improvisational legacies of the Dead. In a concert honoring the world’s most famous jam band, where was the jamming? More to the point: what does it mean that many people in the audience may not have realized that the songs used to include jamming?
Many singers had music stands. Songs simply couldn’t go on long enough to become new songs. Performers hadn’t been on tour endlessly so that they could simply feed off the directions each other was going. Instead, they played the album they had made, with an audience who wanted to hear that album.
What we were left with, then, was a celebration of a moment and place centered around a shared text, but the shared text was the tribute album Day of the Dead – not the actual body of work produced by the Grateful Dead. Make no mistake, I had a great time and sang my heart out, but, unlike the cover of “The Weight” that had just happened, I didn’t really think about the Dead’s history, or my history with the songs, or the original versions at all. What was reified for me had for more to do with the reasons people spend hundreds of dollars to, as my nine-year-old imagines Eaux Claires, “stand for in the heat in front of people who are signing loud songs.” I left thinking about how much I love the Eaux Claires festival, but not about music, or covers, or the Dead.
There were several highlights and nothing was especially weak. Moses Sumney and Jenny Lewis nailed “Cassidy’s” playful urgency. The National were terrific and menacing in “Morning Dew.” Sam Amidon and Lisa Hannigan were appropriately plaintive in “And We Bid You Goodnight.” Even if Phosphorescent’s Matthew Hauck’s Indie-Rocker-in-Shades shtick complicated the swagger of “Sugaree,” it didn’t derail it, and his “Standing on the Moon,” was dense and emotional. But all of these songs felt like live versions of Day of the Dead as opposed to covers.
While it’s not fair to compare audience footage to the polished, official version – or a daytime performance to a prime time spot with lights and a plugged in crowd – it’s worth contrasting the above to a version of Peggy-O played by the National a year ago, a song also on Day of the Dead. The difference, or one of the differences, is that no one saw this one coming.
The National cover “Peggy-O” at last year’s Eaux Claires.
All in all, The Day of the Dead was a valuable enterprise and a worthy assemblage of talents. It made for a terrific, collaborative centerpiece for a terrific festival. But, even as we were all able to sing along, it didn’t do what covers do best: surprise.
Ultimately, I wonder what the concert would have been like if the album hadn’t dropped two months ago so that we hadn’t known who was going to do what and had been given no choice but to “prepare” for the concert by listening to the originals. I’m hoping the creators of the festival take advantage of the unique aspects of Eaux Claires and continue playing with the form of an all-star band next year. I think Eaux Claires truly is a special festival and that the form of the tribute concert itself is one with great potential. Ironically, the effort put into making Day of the Dead an album worth enjoying live complicated the energy and urgency of Day of the Dead as a tribute concert.