CD Review: Songs Of The Grateful Dead: A Tribute To Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter

Earlier this summer, on a beautiful evening at the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival, Jesse McReynolds and his band did a stunning cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” and announced the CD would be out in October. I vowed to be the first in line…and happily the CD finally arrived.

The CD is Jessy McReynolds and Friends (with David Nelson & Stu Allen) – Songs of the Grateful Dead – A Tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. The band is Jesse McReynolds on mandolin and mandolobro, David Nelson (New Riders of the Purple Sage) on electric guitar, Stu Allen on electric and acoustic guitars, Sandy Rothman on banjo, Steve Thomas on fiddle, acoustic guitar, and keyboards, Tommy White on steel guitar, Shawn Apple on drums, Pat McErney on drums, Randy Brown on bass, Tony Wray on acoustic guitar, David Ferguson on bass, and Garret and Amanda McReynolds on harmony vocals.

Seeing the drums, piano, and keyboards, the traditional bluegrass fans might be tempted to bow out now, and never find out what they’re missing. Those instruments keep to the background and work their subtle additions to the music in just a perfect way, the deadheads would say magical. For those of us who came into the bluegrass world through The Grateful Dead’s back door, you’re in for a treat.

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“Black Muddy River”

Jerry Garcia came out of a strong bluegrass background, and Robert Hunter’s lyrics have always had deep roots. Jesse and his band take some of the best Dead songs and turn them into a back porch jam–an epic jam at that. Jesse’s lead vocals take the music a little farther up the holler, and his mandolin–what can I say? He has some leads in there that are so beautiful they just break my heart and make me smile at the same time. The rest of the band follows along, always in the right place at the right time. The CD is not flashy, and never wandering; it will feel just right to both bluegrass fans and Deadheads that are willing to listen to a bit of the other side.

Anyone familiar with The Grateful Dead will recognize all the songs but one. Those not familiar, the songs are hard to describe other than by the deep roots Garcia and Hunter brought to them; give them a listen and they’ll soon be some of your favorites. The song that won’t be recognized is the one that closes out the album, “Day By Day,” a new song co-written by Jesse McReynolds and Robert Hunter, that fits amazingly well with the rest of the album, and leaves me wishing that we had gotten to see Jerry and Jesse playing together.

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