Covering the Dead means a whole lot more than just playing the tunes; to give their songs credibility, there also needs to be a recreation of their spirit. That Dave McMurray has it in spades is immediately apparent from the first few bars of “Fire on the Mountain,” the opening track on his new album Grateful Deadication. That faithful dancing-bear swagger, halfway between a lope and a canter, is indubitably present, correct and reporting for duty. Few bands have such an unmistakable footprint, and to reproduce that–and with your own voice, yet–is little short of remarkable.
McMurray’s “voice” is his saxophone, predominately tenor, and a thing of beauty it is, as is Grateful Deadication as a whole. McMurray is the real deal, a dyed in the wool jazzman with a long and parallel career in sessions; it is his sax on records as diverse as the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge and Brian Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.
Remarkably, he had never really heard the Dead and their music until a chance encounter with Bob Weir, leading to his playing alongside him and the Wolf Bros at 2019’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Intrigued by the odd chord structures and quirky time signatures that litter the songs of the Dead, McMurray immersed himself in their back catalog. He found he was able to fully get into their music, and to appreciate its closeness to the jazz of artists he had greater awareness of–Miles Davis, Weather Report, even Soft Machine.
This, in turn, led to Grateful Deadication, which features his own regular sidemen as well as cameos from Bettye LaVette and Weir, and is his second album for acclaimed jazz label Blue Note. (His first, Music Is Life, featured a cover of the White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army.”)
A brief freeform skronk opens “Fire on the Mountain,” ahead of lurching straight in, the mix of instrumentation perfect, the bass, piano and guitar a glorious shimmer behind the saxophone lead. Deadheads might particularly enjoy the evocation of Garcia’s “Shakedown Street” guitar effects in the undercurrent, possibly synthesizer, possibly wah-wah. Leading straight in to “Dark Star,” instantly recognizable, faithful to the original, but chock-full of new suggestions culled from McMurray’s repertoire of experience. The percussion led middle section is especially engaging. As with the original, I can see the opportunities for the live extended improvisation to be boundless.
The first vocal on the album come from Bettye LaVette, on “Loser,” a song originally on Jerry Garcia’s solo debut. With Weir adding guitar and his Wolf Bros band providing additional backing, LaVette cannot but help add a tad more soul to the song, drawing out the plaintiveness of the lyric. Almost a folk song in Garcia’s voice, this is now unmistakably the blues, with Maurice O’Neal’s wonderful swirling organ and Luis Resto’s chunky piano sparring around her voice and McMurray’s extrapolating sax. A song for our year-end best-of, I feel.
“Estimated Prophet” enters with a distinct Caribbean sway that takes the nod of the original, running further with it, again with that same burble of guitar/synth, lifted near verbatim from the Dead’s own rendition. With no vocals, it is up to McMurray to embellish the song with colors of his own, even if the chorus then sounds naggingly and unintentionally familiar. Guitarist Wayne Gerard, soon sweeps aside such whimsy with his solo, sprinkling notes appealingly before McMurray takes back control.
Into “Eyes of the World,” the ensemble then take a very Weather Report-y take on this 1973 song, Keith Godchaux’s modal influences then beginning to infiltrate the band, following his replacement of the bluesier keyboards of Ron “Pigpen” McKiernan. McMurray’s team manage to give a little more gravitas than the original has held onto. Good to see one of the more lightweight songs of the canon getting some recognition. Bassist Ibrahim Jones and drummer Jeff Canady, along with Larry Fratalangelo on percussion, are all exquisitely busy, and so integral within the mix as to almost be taken for granted. Until you listen and pick them out, opening whole new vistas. Indeed, on the album as a whole, the blend of Canady and Fratalangelo is spot on, drawing out how underrated was the twin percussion drive of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, so much more than extended drum solo bathroom breaks.
“The Eleven” was so called on the basis of its 11 beat time signature, and starts conventionally enough–well, as far as such a rhythm can allow–before a sudden and welcome sideways swipe into calypso territory, enlivening this otherwise workout of a song no end. Another switch at the two-thirds stage applies a neat fusion feel until all the different styles return for a brief coda. Soul man and Kid Rock associate Herschel Boone then stops by to give a distinctly Philly vibe to “Touch of Grey,” which is both surprising and effective, reminiscent of early Hall & Oates, with peerless stand-up bass from Jones, McMurray playing flute here as well. All the essentials of the song are here, if morphed and muddled into a re-envisioning that will surprise. A short instrumental reprise of the same song follows, giving McMurray an opportunity for a swift flourish of his impressive saxophony.
“Franklin’s Tower” is really little more here than for the band to strut their collective chops, each member coming to the front and taking a place in the spotlight. Which, even if true, should certainly not have you pressing skip, the turns each being exemplary. Guitarist Gerard imbues an Allmanesque vibe, McMurray then channeling Junior Walker, O’Neal following with a few bars of New Orleans swirl. For me, Jones’ stand-up bass section then tops them all, narrowly followed by the dual percussion, all of these short enough to maintain momentum, long enough to widen eyes. Hell, even the Hawkwind sound effects that close it fit!
“The Music Never Stopped” is, I guess, as much a reason to close on account of its name as anything else. Always an odd song to my ears, given the awkward juxtaposition of the opening section, which arouses interest, and the wail of Donna Godchaux, which doesn’t, as she takes it off into fauxtown Motown. Without that vocal, McMurray’s take can’t help but be an improvement, but is a slightly disappointing closer, being little more than well-played noodle. Top-caliber well-played noodle, that is to say, just a bit of a downer after the height of the rest of this otherwise superb record. I do like the 1,2,3 closing segment, mind, as the funkiness begins to climb, and drags the song back to par.
If you love the Dead, you will love this album. If you don’t, well, actually, you may still well. In the same way Deadicated proved an excellent gateway drug to this band, hopefully so this will too, as well as opening ears to the name and sound of Dave McMurray. Peerlessly produced by Don Was, Grateful Deadication is a vital acquisition for any lover of jazz, rock, soul, anything really, and so, for everyone.
Grateful Deadication Tracklisting:
- Fire On The Mountain
- Dark Star
- Loser (feat. Bettye LaVette & Bob Weir/Wolf Bros)
- Estimated Prophet
- Eyes Of The World
- The Eleven
- Touch Of Grey (feat. Herschel Boone)
- Touch Of Grey (instrumental reprise)
- Franklin’s Tower
- The Music Never Stopped