Tribute and cover bands have always been very silly, right? Though usually interesting, to most, starting a tribute band is an escape from a lack of creativity and/or originality. Perhaps those people are correct, but none the less and more importantly, devotion and love for music play a large role. A band that sets out to play another bands songs all the time. Nothing else, just that particular bands songs. Dedication is most definitely there and most likely fun is there also. For a band like the Dark Star Orchestra to tour throughout the world and each day put on a recreation of a former Grateful Dead show is amazing and outlandish in some ways. And surprisingly enough, there is a great deal of other bands who lie in the same category and are just as dedicated.
It is no surprise that the Grateful Dead have a large following of tribute and cover bands. Touring for at least thirty years (They have toured under different names (Warlocks, Dead, etc) also) is bound to catch any band a cult following. But out of all the big time bands, the Grateful Dead’s tribute groups always seem to rise higher than The Beatles’, Led Zeppelin’s, The Who’s, etc. The Zen Tricksters had quite a large following even when they were a Dead cover band, but their popularity rose high when they started doing originals. Surprisingly enough, in time keyboardist Rob Barraco would be recruited by Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead bassist) to collaborate with him and others of Phil Lesh & Friends’ There and Back Again. Later on, he would become a member of the Grateful Dead revival, The Dead. The Dark Star Orchestra have been known as a Grateful Dead cover band that take their tribute almost over the top. Not only does that band recreate the line up and have vocalists who sound amazingly like each member, but perform a each show as though it was a past Grateful Dead show. They take old Dead set lists and even do more during their shows to bring the spirit of the Grateful Dead alive. Though those cover bands are beyond fabulous and only give a good name to the Grateful Dead, another has past both up following wise, skill wise, and in some ways originality wise.
Jazz is Dead is a super group cover band who plays Grateful Dead songs. The band is in no way ignorant to the music, nor the band. In fact, they have quite a history with them. Former and legendary drummer of the Mahavishnu Orchestra Billy Cobham use to play in Bobby & The Midnites along with Alphonso Johnson of Jazz is Dead and Weather Report. And Bobby & The Midnites is of course a side project for Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir. And of course, Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe had been in a band filled with Grateful Dead influence, the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Jimmy would also go on to play with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and even help fill the role of the late Jerry Garcia in The Dead. Though they have history, why would these Fusion players, Jazzbos and virtuosos want to play Grateful Dead songs? Well, Billy Cobham had once said in an interview because’
Originally Posted by Billy Cobham
They’re highly intellectual people. They may look one way but they’re not...These guys are not stupid - they sit back and they think a lot about what’s going on. Otherwise, they could have never sustained themselves for so long.
He had also agreed that their music transferred to Jazz quite well.
The technical skill of Jazz is Dead is extraordinarily high. Alphonso Johnson is no stranger to technical ability. He had spent time playing with the fabulous musicians of Weather Report, which once housed the amazing Jaco Pastorius. Like Johnson, Rod Morgenstein and T Lavitz had made a career with a group known for ability. Lavitz and Morgenstein had gained much respect by playing in the Dixie Dregs, with guitar virtuoso Steve Morse. And finally, the boys of the Aquarium Rescue Unit have withheld major ability for years, but have rarely been praised for it. Though not known, they can certainly hold their own, just like the rest of Jazz is Dead.
Laughing Water is a recreation of the Grateful Dead’s masterpiece Wake of the Flood. An album that originally possessed elements of Rock, Jazz, Country, Psychedelia and even Classical. Songs like the vintage sounding “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo", and the nonchalant “Eyes of the World" made Wake of the Flood a highlight to all Dead fans. And because of high level of diversity heard inside of the Dead’s 1973 release, it is extremely interesting to listen to.
Laughing Water opens with the eerie sound of guest vocalist and former Grateful Dead member Donna Jean Godchaux’s voice. She spills out an odd blend of mystique and emotion to provide a vocal intro to the well covered “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo". It’s rare that you will find vocals in a Jazz is Dead cover. For they themselves have stated that they want to the listening to discover the musical conversation going on between the instrumentalists. So, they of course believe that vocals are a definite distraction. This opener is filled with great interludes by both fiddle extraordinaire Vassar Clements (Who played in the original version) and Herring. Herring manages to play not only the vocal melody, but the solos with his unique genre adapting style. Following the old time sounding intro, Jazz is Dead move into the Keith Godchaux original. Though “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away" is the weakest number on Wake of the Flood, Jazz is Dead manage to provide much of the vibe and sound the Dead had. The swirling keyboard playing of T Lavitz manages to make the song plenty interesting. And Johnson’s solid bass lines only better the upbeat tune.
Following the first two track, the first ballad makes its way into the album. ‘Row Jimmy" slows down the pace pleasantly. Johnson’s powerful Phil Lesh written bass lines create a perfect back bone for Herring to lead. Herring betters himself on “Row Jimmy". He displays much more ability and diversity. He shifts for powerful solos to gentle rhythmic lines. With the support of Allman slide giant Derek Trucks, Herring can do no wrong. The dual drumming of Morgenstein and Sipe is present to mimic the style of the Grateful Dead’s Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, but at the same time shows originality. The atmospheric sound of “Row Jimmy" make the track a definite highlight. Following the pleasant third comes ‘Stella Blue". A legendary Dead ballad that I feel lives up to its revival, “Row Jimmy". “Stella Blue" opens with a very lovely New Age vibe. Beautiful classical guitar stylings are played in the background, while Lavitz leads the band by mimicking the original melody, while at same time providing other various effects. In time, Mr. Herring takes lead while the rhythm section smoothly harmonizes. Aside from low points that one may find in this cover, the beauty just simply shines through all.
If you haven’t already notice, the album is separated into sections. The album opens with two upbeat Roots songs, makes its way to a pair of ballads, and now to two upbeat indescribable numbers. “Here Comes Sunshine/Sunshine Jam", opens up this third section. Donna Jean’s vocal open the piece with the original chorus’ lyrics. Herring quickly introduces the main line, and performs the opening verse perfectly. I have always found that “Here Comes Sunshine" sounds like it would have been done by The Beatles. Surprisingly, the instrumental cover also sounds like it would have been. The combination of Herring and Lavitz on this tune take Laughing Water to new heights. Not only do they harmonize well, but there are just simply great players. Next Up, “Eyes of the World/Two Sisters" makes its first appearance. The original ‘Eyes of the World" has been a favorite of mine since I have first heard it, needless to say, Jazz is Dead do the song and the Grateful Dead justice. The Jazz influence tune is opened up with an interesting slap line provided by Alphonso Johnson. Jimmy then wipes out the original introduction, with the squealing slide Garcia used. Of course, the band lend makes their way through a verse and then a chorus, but then opens some jam time. Herring soon takes off with lighting fast trills and numerous other interesting guitar techniques. Even some wild finger tapping. Which you would think would give him some credit from virtuoso fans. Lavitz then take his chance to wow the listen by covering the whole keyboard throughout his solos and still not going over the top. Over time, chorus through chorus, and verse through verse, Lavitz and Herring distribute solos to the listeners ears off and on. Each more satisfying than the next, and perfectly well rounded. A fantastic cover!
The album to this point has done very well. Luckily, there are no disappointments on this final and fourth section. To conclude this wonderful album, Jazz is Dead performs the Bob Weir epic, but split it into two different sections. The classical influenced “Weather Report Suite: Part 1/Part/Let it Grow" helped gain praise for Garcia, and in many ways, same with Herring. The band approaches the songs as though there are no vocals at all; taking a lot of the creativity into their own hands. Herring mimics Jerry Garcia’s Classical influenced guitar lines very nicely. He and Lavitz lead the song spectacularly, but as the epic reaches its second section, it would be the rhythm section that puts on the show. Sipe and Morgenstein go around and around performing rapid rolls and various percussion instruments, while Johnson backs up with partners perfectly. He keeps to the background, but makes his presence known. Half way through part two, the intensity grows. Double bass pedals pound upon the bass drum, Johnson makes his way all over the neck, Herring taunts the listener with rapid techniques, and suddenly slows them down, and finally, Lavitz pounds note upon note into his keyboard with complete consistency. A perfect conclusion.
Well, I have yet to hear any of the previous Jazz is Dead albums, but I don’t believe I am making an outlandish step by giving Laughing Water a 4.9/5