The bluegrass tribute album genre has earned a somewhat negative reputation because many releases simply present straight covers of popular rock and pop tracks - staid recordings arranged for stringed instruments like banjo and mandolin that offer little in the way of creativity.
Leave all of your preconceptions at the door when you check out the new collection from bluegrass legend Jesse McReynolds. The album pays tribute to the musical legacy of the Grateful Dead, specifically the collaborative songwriting efforts of guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia and songwriter Robert Hunter, and breathes new and different life into these classic songs by embracing elements of bluegrass without turning everything into a breakdown.
Although people think of the Grateful Dead as a psychedelic band, much of the music the band played, especially the songs created by Garcia/Hunter would now be categorized under the broad Americana music genre. Garcia understood Hunter's unique vision of American imagery and used his background in folk, jug band and bluegrass music to bring those stories and characters to life in a way that translates very easily to typical bluegrass instrumentation.
Two longtime Garcia colleagues, David Nelson (New Riders of the Purple Sage/Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band) and Sandy Rothman (Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band) join McReynolds and Stu Allen (JGB Band) as the primary musicians for this set. The group impresses with subtlety, allowing McReynold's distinctively warm vocals to carry the tunes.
Some of the set's finest moments like Ripple, Deep Elem Blues and Black Muddy River are predictable because the original version favored acoustic instruments, while others like Franklin's Tower, The Wheel and Standing on the Moon surprise and delight with fresh arrangements.
Another bright spot is the final track Day By Day, a new Hunter song featuring beautiful harmony vocals from Jesse, Garrett and Amanda McReynolds. Could this signal future collaborations between McReynolds and Hunter? We should be so lucky.