Last July, I drove three hours to meet my brother in Eau Claire, Wisconsin for the inaugural Eaux Claires festival. Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and Michael Brown — the festival’s co-creators — were explicit about their desire to challenge the festival format, one typically designed to gather bands like vendors hawking wares at a marketplace in such a way that explicitly and implicitly pits them against one another, reinforcing genre differences and emphasizing the consumption of music more than its creation and enjoyment.
To those ends, Eaux Claires creators and designers set out to dissolve some of the barriers that typically separate the people who make art from the people who witness it. Festival goers were encouraged to engage with art installations, to experience performance in three interactive and innovative domes, and to journal about their experiences in field guides that were distributed upon admission. Likewise, performers were encouraged to jettison the sorts of festival behaviors expected of rock stars, to collaborate, to take risks, and to be fans of each other. Given my pet theory that covers are such a specific musical pleasure precisely because they become sonic artifacts that merge the roles of making and enjoying art, I expected the creators’ interest in similar mergers to create a fertile ground for covers and collaborations that changed songs in some of the same way covers do.
This year’s edition of Eaux Claires, happening August 12 and 13, will feature an all-star band — anchored by the two pairs of brothers who make up four fifths of The National — performing a set of songs culled from Day of the Dead, the massive, five-and-a-half hour Grateful Dead tribute album released earlier this year to raise money for the Red Hot organization. Curated and produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner, the album was four years in the making and features over a dozen artists slated to perform during the weekend.
Given the likelihood that the 90-minute set will create even more collaboration than the album it is drawing from, the “Day of the Dead” event promises to showcase the cover song as an ideal medium for the festival’s loftiest ambitions. In preparation for the event, I spoke separately to Phil Cook of Megafaun, Sam Amidon, and Jason Treuting of So Percussion. While each conversation started with the experience of contributing to the Day of the Dead and about what one should expect from its live iteration, each conversation found its way to more philosophical ground where we talked about the nature and purpose of covers. This should have come as no surprise: in addition to writing and creating their own music, all three musicians have dedicated a good chunk of their professional lives, in very different ways, to playing music that they did not write, at least not exactly.
My conversation with Jason Treuting began with us wondering together why classical musicians aren’t thought to be covering the pieces they perform. His experimental drum quartet, Sō Percussion, is often considered classical, in the tradition of John Cage and Steve Reich, though Treuting said they were mostly “happy to run in the between-the-cracks-world.” Still, though they write a great deal of the music they record, they also record songs written for them as well as classical compositions written for others. While one typically thinks of playing a piece of music as something different than covering it, Treuting suggested there was a whole lot of common ground between “what we did for Day of the Dead and what we do when we play Steve Reich’s Drumming.”
Treuting posited that the distinction between playing a piece and covering it might have more to do with the difference between the missions of Sō Percussion and an orchestra or classical quartet “where the assumption would be that you could give them any piece of music and they would play it and interpret it to the best of their ability. We are much more territorial about what we play.” For Treuting “there is no reason to play a song if we don’t have something fresh to add to it. You start with figuring out where the original is coming from. What was relevant when it was written? What is relevant now? Where are we at? Why am I in the room with this piece? Why should it be me?”
One of Sō Percussion’s contributions to Day of the Dead illustrates what Treuting is getting at. “In ‘Drums → Space,’ we were going less for a Mickey Hart sound than we were exploring all of the things the he gave to us as drummers, the way he opened up western drumming to all sorts of rhythms.” The cover then becomes a tool of homage that goes beyond a rendition of the song itself, allowing the performer to reflect on their own interactions and history with the source material. In this piece, Treuting located the interplay in things the way they used and played with an 11/8 time signature.
For Phil Cook, someone working in the very different tradition of the American Roots, covers provide an interface that is even more immediate and practical “Covers are a great way to learn music. They are a way to discover what feels natural to you and what feels like too much of a stretch,” Cook said. They allow a direct way to access “how people play, how people phrase, how people do things.” Beyond providing tools to learn through mimesis, “covers are a way to identify yourself, what your thread is in the canon, your thread of the sweater. How to wear it.” Where Treuting described the cover as a transaction dependent upon having something fresh to add to the original, Cook conceptualized the cover as a space in which one might find one’s self.
Sam Amidon, a fiddle and banjo player best known for original songs that paint with a traditional brush, forwarded a model somewhere between the ones offered by Treuting and Cook: “A cover is a dialogue between your version and the original,” he said. “If you’re doing an R. Kelly song on an acoustic guitar, you’re going to be in a different sonic register, one that draws attention to the original register.”
For Amidon, covers differ in subtle but significant ways from other ways of working with preexisting material. Amidon distinguished between “a new version of an old song and playing a folk song” where, in the latter, the lack of specific ownership to another musician renders the act of playing less an act of interpretation than simply one of many iterations of a piece that might be thought of to exist as a multiplicity.
I suggested that, if covers like his haunting rendering of the Tears for Fears classic “Head Over Heels” were a dialogue between renditions of the song, playing a folk song might be a conversation between an individual iteration and a tradition. “That sounds mostly right,” he said, “though I am uncomfortable with the self-conscious notion of updating a folk song. Traditions that I often steal elements of are very much alive. I was very lucky to grow up with them as living things. We’re in an era where a lot of stuff is incorrectly relegated to the past. Everyone is in the past.” He stopped and laughed: “But everything is still present.”
This sentiment that one shouldn’t “be too worried about being dialogue with a tradition so much as simply a part of it” resembled but differed slightly from something Cook had said about the misguided notion that one can represent American roots music: “There are no roots,” Cook said. “There are a lot of branches.”
In addition to covers and folks songs, Amidon described a third way to engage with the musical past and present: incorporating elements of living traditions into original songs in the manner of collage, something more akin to samples and “the stuff RZA was doing with the Wu-Tang” than to the traditional notion of a cover. In this way, one can “create an open context for elements of other people’s lives to happen.” Where Cook described covers as a means to map out one’s place in the musical canon, Amidon described the use of folk elements as “making up an imagined musical canon, a world where what you are hearing is what people engage with all the time.”
For Amidon, the idea of the imagined cannon is especially apt for Day of the Dead because “part of the great thing about the Dead is that they would play anything. The Dead’s body of work constitutes an amazing version of the America Songbook.” Commenting upon this body of work is part of what the album did and part of what the concert will do: “Because the National really encouraged artists to engage with the songs as writers, the album is like a reading of a reading of a reading.” To clarify his point, Amidon pointed out that he hadn’t actually been familiar with the Dead’s rendition of the “And We Bid You Goodnight”; he was familiar with the English folk version of the song and his “parents had a copy of recordings of Joseph Spence.”
The all-star performance of the Dead’s body of work, in other words, will present a variety of arguments about what the canon is, about what traditions, influences, and ideas make up the American Songbook. This argument, according to Amidon, will be made in part because of the cover’s ability “to connect an audience to what I hear.”
Phil Cook mentioned something similar about covers as a means of connection, not just to the audience but to one’s band mates. “Covers are one of the best parts of being in a band. 95% of being in a band is driving around deejaying for each other.” It is inevitable, he said, that “something will come on and you all will be like that’s cool, we should do that.” In the process, you “learn how each other hear things.”
Cook mentioned specifically this cover of Willis Alan Ramsey’s Northeast Texas Woman he did with Amelia Meath (of Sylvan Esso) that “came together faster than any of the original songs we had been rehearsing for a week.” With a cover, you “get to what you think is the core of the song. And then you have what their core is. And, to play it, their core and your core have to become intertwined.”
Despite their varied ways of working with pre-existing material, all three artists value such spaces in which things become intertwined. For Amidon, this space is in the dialogue offered by a cover but also in the space laid out by sonic collage. For Treuting and Sō Percussion, this happens all the time in the form of collaboration. “With the Terrapin Station [Suite,] Bryce came to us with an arrangement for the section at the end and we were able to find some places to add some sounds in our wheelhouse. Like ‘oh man, what would that sound like if we added these two bottles with this particular sound?’”
The process of intertwining cores (and the metaphor of renditions in dialogue) also resembles the method of collaboration that Sō Percussion have been using to make music with Eaux Claires performers Buke & Gase and Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), pieces that will be performed at Eaux Claires and released in the fall. “We approach their work; they approach ours.”
As an album, Day of the Dead bears the strong fingerprints of the National, a band who owes more to the traditions that Sō Percussion references than the sprawling macrophage jam band mythos that is the legacy of the Grateful Dead. Because of the nature of live music, there is a potential that the set of Dead covers might get more solo-laden and looser. In any case, some elements of spontaneity will be injected simply by the fact that artists will sit in on more songs than they recorded. “They’ll just give me the key,” Cook said, “and I’ll capo accordingly.”
I can’t speak for my brother, but I’ll be there. And I’ll write about it.
Check out Day of the Dead at Amazon. And Phil Cook’s outstanding Southland Mission. And Sō Percussion’s performance of pieces written by Bryce Dessner and others. And Sam Amidon’s terrific re-release of But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted. Get information about (or your ticket for) Eaux Claires here.