The National, Grizzly Bear and more on their all-star Grateful Dead tribute album

Dead Of The Dead also features My Morning Jacket, Lee Ranaldo, Yo La Tengo and assorted Dead members

Trending Now

For The National, Day Of The Dead closes a personal full circle. The first time brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner played music with their Cincinnati friends Scott and Bryan Devendorf, the four jammed on “Eyes Of The World”, a jazzy deep cut and deep jam vehicle from 1973’s Wake Of The Flood. Though the older Bryan Devendorf was the only one who saw the Grateful Dead before Jerry Garcia’s death, all four future members of The National collected and traded live tapes in high school.

“Where we come from, the Midwestern suburbs, it was the cooler, older kids who listened to the Dead and smoked weed,” Bryan Devendorf remembers. “So I ended up buying the Europe ’72 cassette at the mall to play in my car. I wanted to be cool, and thought maybe that would help.”

But like many kids in the ’90s, the Dessners and Devendorfs gravitated towards the more aggressive alternative and punk rock sounds that seemed diametrically opposed to the laid-back hippy vibes of the Dead. When The National, with vocalist Matt Berninger, broke out with 2005’s Alligator, few listeners could have perceived any lingering Dead influence in the band’s moody, atmospheric sound.


In 2009, the Dessners curated Dark Was The Night, a double-disc charity compilation for the Red Hot Organisation, which raises funds for AIDS research and awareness. Stocked with original tracks and covers from favourites such as Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and Spoon, the album doubled as a definitive State Of Indie Rock address, a comprehensive index of the sounds that dominated early 21st-century indie.

Approached by Red Hot for a follow-up, the Dessners hatched a more subversive plan, organising the next comp round the Grateful Dead catalogue. After the Dead’s camp gave them their blessing, and guitarist Bob Weir invited the group out for a 2012 live webcast session at his TRI Studios, The National members set out to find contributors.

The Dessners knew they could rely on a core group of Dead-sympathetic friends to participate – including members of Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, The Walkmen and Real Estate. But as word slipped out about the comp and its subject matter, more and more secret Deadheads came out of the woodwork. Some, such as LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, said no, Dessner said. But more said yes.


“The most fun thing about the process was discovering the degree to which all these people I revered, from all these different corners of music world, have appreciation for the Dead,” Dessner says. “It wasn’t hard to find bands… most people we approached were super into it, and it wasn’t like there had to be an education about who the Dead were.”

As the list grew longer, it stretched beyond the boundaries of indie rock. Soul revivalist Charles Bradley agreed to remake “Cumberland Blues”, the band’s hyperactive bluegrass original, with Daptone stylists The Menahan Street Band. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer claimed “King Solomon’s Marbles”, a baroque instrumental from their cosmic-prog era Blues From Allah album. Even Canadian hardcore act Fucked Up volunteered to do “Cream Puff War”, an early Dead original from when they sounded like a garage-rock band worthy of Nuggets.

“We were blown away that they would want to be involved,” Dessner says of Fucked Up. “But that’s sort of the surprising nature of the Dead; some people write them off as uncool or hippy shit, but I think people that actually spent time with it, realise there’s this early Merry Prankster rebellious Dead that’s of a different quality to their later mega-Dead era.”


Latest Issue