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Published: 2001/11/21
by Michael Lello

Gifts from the Dead – various artists

Cedar Glen Music Group 1023-2

Even before you throw "Gifts From the Dead" into your CD player, you're
struck with the
notion that this might not exactly be a masterpiece. The printing style on
the disc makes it look
like a homemade project, not to mention the typos: St. Stephen is
spelled
St. Steven on the
track list, the "k" in I Know You Rider is in lower case and Merl
Saunders' first name is
inconsistent, sometimes spelled with or without an "e" at the end in the
liner notes.

Unfortunately, these shortcomings are just as noticeable in the music on
this project,
assembled and produced by multi-instrumentalist Fred Bogert. It's one of
countless Dead tribute
albums, this time focusing on instrumental bluegrass, and features guest
work
from Dead family
members Vince Welnick (former Dead keyboardist), Saunders (longtime Bay Area
keyboardist
and Garcia associate) and bluegrass violin legend and Dead friend Vassar
Clements. Bogert's
seven-piece ensemble strips Dead classics to their most basic elements, with
banjo, piano, violin
and other acoustic instruments doing the deed. And while this treatment
shows
just how strong
these compositions are at any level, the relative lifelessness that haunts
most of "Gifts From The
Dead" reinforces the fact that only one group of musicians truly had the
ability to breathe
soulfulness into these tunes: the Dead themselves.

While the group, especially guitarist/banjo player Pete Huttlinger, and
the guests, do a fine
job of interpreting some classics, most of the disc comes off as chamber
music suitable for
background fare at a supermarket. During the opening strains of Sugar
Magnolia you can't
help but expect to hear an announcement like "Sheila to the deli aisle
please, Sheila to the deli
aisle".

There's no arguing that some of the instrumentation here is beautiful,
especially on tracks
like Ripple and China Doll. And while the piano on the latter
is quite
pretty, it just can't reach
the emotional high of the Dead's version; you'd much rather hear Garcia belt
out the line "Just a
little nervous from the fall" than hear violins and flutes take his place.
Magnolia and Mexicali
Blues are begging for Weir, the closest thing to a true rocker in the
Dead, to inject energy into
them.

While boiling the massive Dead canon down to 12 tracks is impossible, Bogert and company may have been better served to avoid a greatest hits approach and using more bluegrass-friendly tunes like Cumberland Blues and Dire Wolf Bluegrass music – both the old-school stuff and neo-grass outfits like the Gordon Stone Band and String Cheese Incident – is often cited for being bouncy, bubbly and buoyant. The only "b" words applicable here, unfortunately, are banal and boring. The ensemble is comprised of Bogert (bass, acoustic guitar), Huttlinger (acoustic guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and banjo), David Angell (violin), Melissa Javers (dulcimer), Bob Mason (cello), Bob Bowers (flute, bassoon, recorders and penny whistle) and Mike Lawson (acoustic guitar, mandolin). It's a seasoned cast, with the players having performed on albums by Bela Fleck, the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Jorma Kaukonen and Clements.

Credit Bogert and his compatriots with trying an original idea based on
some old music,
but only pick this one up if your a completist, a collector that needs to
have all things Dead. The
amount and diversity of Dead tribute projects out there shows how
influential
and respected the
band is among its peers, but with so many out there, it's inevitable that
some, like "Gifts From
The Dead", will fall flat. There's been swing tributes, reggae tributes and
the eclectic and brilliant
"Stolen Roses", which features everyone from Henry Rollins to Elvis Costello
pitching in, and
groups like Jazz is Dead, who've made a career of putting a new spin on the
Dead. Checking out
one of those projects is recommended and may be more rewarding than
accepting
"Gifts From the
Dead", but who knows, you may end up loving this album. But I strongly doubt
it.

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