Several years ago I found myself at a hole-in-the-wall reggae record store in Albany, NY. I got my hands on a copy of Fire On The Mountain, a Grateful Dead tribute album bursting with reggae talent from the 70’s and 80’s. What interested me was how beautifully Dead translated to reggae instrumentation, and secondly, how so many Dead lyrics contain themes, phrases, and emotions that are common to reggae. New Hampshire’s Roots of Creation has always been passionate about the Dead, conversely integrating Dead song structure, lyricism, and the like into RoC’s blend of reggae, rock, and jam. So when they made Grateful Dub (self-released, 2018), the project just made sense- not because the Grateful Dead needs to be covered anymore than it already is, but because Roots of Creation deserve to have a fun, playful record. Besides, it seems RoC is more about sharing in these songs with their fans than playing them for their fans. The results are devilishly entertaining, and RoC has pulled off a restrained (they tend to like to get loud and fast, which I love) set of 13 cover songs.
Expectantly, they start off with “Fire On The Mountain” (a turn of phrase that can so easily conjure certain Rasta practices). The groove is driving, punctuated by a horn section, and then thankfully the band builds into a Dead/Roots mash-up style jam and guitar solo.
For “Deal” they launch into ska. For “He’s Gone” they revel in the an 80’s style with melodica. “Sugaree” is an uptempo, dubbed out version with floored sax. But three songs really steal the show:
“Casey Jones” soars on funky clavinet and a rolling bassline. The band stays close to the vibe of the original, a dance-able rollick, and lyrically an on-point song anyway, their version guest stars Dan Kelly from Fortunate Youth. Brett and Dan’s voices gel very well together, and the two add a soulfulness and grit to the lyrics that’s not in the original but totally befitting.
“Black Muddy River” is also great, showcasing the band’s slower, more meditative side, and, once again, the lyrics are almost meant for reggae music (and notably, one of the Dead’s most poetic undertakings). And to really accentuate the glory, this track features Melvin Seals.
Finally, they do an instrumental version of “Shakedown Street”. I’ve always loved RoC’s jam songs, those that are reggae infused but rocking and dubbed out, and just a tad psychedelic. They handle that mood here, relying on the horns to play the vocal melodies of the original, and they bounce from 70’s-sounding funk to 90’s-sounding jam to contemporary Cali-style rock steady.
Other guest stars include, Stephen Marley, G. Love, Marlon Asher, Jesse Wagner, and Hayley Jane. Other highlights include the cover art (detailed, thought-provoking, and sexy), and a track that’s singer Brett Wilson’s daughter asking for a moment of silence for Jerry Garcia.
Granted, I have a friend who may love music even more than I do, and his profound respect for the Grateful Dead caused him once to exclaim that covering the songs in another genre is nearly blasphemous. But I think differently: Dead songs are canonized. Some of their songs are folk preservation, and naturally, musicians will, in time, take their spin on the traditionals (think of how many jazz singers have recorded “Sunny Side of The Street”). A band as exploratory as Roots can pull off wonderful takes on these songs we know and love.
Production-wise, Errol Brown and Chris Gehringer deserve mad props for making the best-sounding Root of Creation album to date. The feel is warm, steady, and rich. And Brett Wilson’s voice is on. My hope is that the band can take this album’s feel, the quality of sound, and the attention to detail into their next set of originals, because they nailed it on Grateful Dub.