Continuing on with last week’s theme—Robert Hunter—I want to turn the spotlight to his post-Garcia songwriting collaborations, many of which are excellent.
I don’t think any of us expected Hunter to crawl into a cave and disappear after Jerry died. That’s not what restlessly creative types do. But I’m not sure any of us could have predicted how much would flow out of him, nor the myriad musical styles they would inspire.
Here’s a large, though not complete, sampling of places to hear Hunter’s work since that woeful day in August 1995, which was decidedly not “just like any other day that’s ever been.”
Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box (1996). This album, featuring some of Mickey’s Planet Drum mates plus a six-woman vocal group called the Mint Julips, was more than halfway done when Garcia died, with most of the tunes already written. However, songs such as “The Next Step” and “The Last Song” seem as if they are addressing the feelings of uncertainly, loss and confusion we all experienced in the wake of Jerry’s death. And “Down the Road” famously includes a direct reference to Garcia: “I heard a laugh I recognized come rolling from the earth/ Saw it rise into the skies like lightning giving birth/ It sounded like Garcia but I couldn't see the face/ Just the beard and glasses and a smile on empty space." The Mystery Box band was part of the first Furthur Festival, and though Mickey has said he didn’t think the singers and the band gelled live, I thought they were wonderful, and their performances of the Hunter-Hart tunes cathartic.
Zero (1997). After collaborating with Zero guitarist Steve Kimock and drummer Greg Anton on five songs—sung by Judge Murphy—on the 1994 live album Chance in a Million, Hunter returned to the Zero stable for this collection of tunes, my favorites of which are probably “Spoken For” and “Eight Below Zero.” The group’s musical settings for Hunter’s words are not particularly imaginative and Murphy’s blues-rock vocals sound somewhat generic to me, but there are some strong lyrics.
The Other Ones: The Strange Remain (1998). The title track, co-written by Mickey and Hunter, first appeared on Mystery Box but actually was written for the Grateful Dead years earlier. The moody and spare Weir-Hart-Hunter “Banyan Tree” was one of a few new originals for this first high-profile aggregation of former GD members and fellow travelers. Here’s a cool verse: “This is not the way I chose/ The way has chosen me/ Dangling to the muddy road/ Beneath the banyan tree.” I don’t think it’s just the mention of a banyan tree that reminds me of Kipling. And the highly rhythmic Hart-Hunter tune “Baba Jingo” contains a number of verses in the classic Hunter mold, including this one: “Now pass that cup from lip to lip but never spill a drop/ Sip the foam and lick the brine from the bottom to the top/ Ask the lizard on the stone the way to No Man's Land/ Right by night and left by day, just as the wind commands.”
The Gans-Hunter tunes. Singer/songwriter and Grateful Dead Hour radio host David Gans has put out a couple of strong collaborations with Hunter. The acerbic put-down song “Shut Up and Listen” appears on David’s Solo Acoustic disc (2001), and you can hear the angry and defiant “Like a Dog” on David’s fine 2008 opus The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best: “Sick of getting’ lied on, spied on and judged/ By people I don't even know/ Spent too much time holdin’ a grudge/ And spittin’ on the name of the rose.” Yow!
Phil Lesh & Friends: There and Back Again (2002). This beautifully made and underrated studio album by one of Phil’s most stable bands—the always adventurous PLQ (Phil Lesh Quintet) with Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Molo and Rob Barraco—finds Hunter writing with a few different members of the band. There’s Phil and Hunter’s optimistic anthem “Celebration” (“Let a fresh wind tear through your soul/ Swallow your sorrow and deliver you whole”); “Rock and Roll Blues” and, my personal favorite, “No More Do I” (“Meet me under painted thunder/ Lift me up to gospel skies”). Phil, Hunter and Warren Haynes wrote the lively PLQ concert staple “Night of a Thousand Stars,” and Herring and Hunter penned the pretty ballad “Again and Again” (sung by Barraco, with Lesh and Haynes).
Other early 2000s Lesh-Hunter tunes include the impressionistic “Mirror of Thalassa” (played by Phil & Friends) and “A Little Piece of You” (The Dead, 2003), in which Hunter (and Phil) pledge to leave us with “A piece of my vision, a piece of my brain/ To fight your battles once I am slain/ A piece of my heart I never touched/ A piece of my soul, though I can't spare much.” Nice.
Moonlight Rodeo:Rio Lindo (2003). Anyone out there heard this album? I haven’t. This Marin County band, described by the Allmusic.com as “alternative country,” was/is led by a fellow named Kurt Huget and he co-wrote five songs with Hunter for this, the group’s second album.
Rhythm Devils: Concert Experience (2008). Captured at shows in 2006 with the prime Rhythm Devils lineup of Mickey, Bill, Steve Kimock, Phish’s Mike Gordon on bass, talking drum maestro Sikiru and singer Jen Durkin, this maddeningly overproduced DVD (way too many distracting visual FX and quick cuts) nonetheless showcases a handful of pretty good songs Mickey (and in some cases Kimock) wrote with Hunter specifically for this band. Three have a bubbly and infectious African lilt to them: “Comes a Dawn” (“Distant music seems to rise from somewhere gladly/ And beyond all times and space/ And yet it sounds so familiar”); “Next Dimension” (“Love is the ocean and time’s the tide”); and the complicated relationship drama “Your House.” The funky “Fountains of Wood” dares to unleash multiple rapid repeats of these four words—“Multiphonic, supersonic, catatonic, anodyne”—yet it works! There are a few others, as well, but I’d recommend searching for audio versions on Archive.org. Last year’s incarnations of the Rhythm Devils, with Tim Bluhm, Keller Williams, Davey Knowles and Andy Hess joining the fray (and Jen Durkin gone), put a different spin on these interesting original tunes.
New Riders of the Purple Sage: Where I Come From (2009). David Nelson and Robert Hunter have written a number of fine songs together through the years, some of which have turned up in the David Nelson Band repertoire (“Kick in the Head,” “John Hardy’s Wedding,” “Four: Fifty One,” “Long Gone Sam,” etc.), but this NRPS album represents perhaps their greatest creative burst together. Seven of the album’s 12 songs are new Hunter-Nelson efforts, and a few are among their best: the twangy, driving title track (“Fed up rehearsing my part/ Gonna wing this one right from the heart/ The only place to start/ Where I come from”); the enigmatic “Barracuda Moon,” which bounces along on a second-line beat and Buddy Cage’s singing steel (“Been in San Francisco beneath a copper cloud/ First mistake we made was coming on too proud/ The next mistake we made was not being proud enough / It's always all or nothing, if you don't like it, tough”); and one of Hunter’s finest “road” songs, “Down the Middle” (“My destination is freedom itself/ And if I find it, I will share the wealth/ Roll down the window, arm on the sill / First coyote calls from the hill.” Good stuff.
The three Jim Lauderdale albums:
Headed for the Hills (2004) I believe folk/Americana singer-songwriter Lauderdale first collaborated with Hunter on a song called “I Will Wait for You” on the Lauderdale-Ralph Stanley record I Feel Like Singing Today (1999), but this album marks the first of three full discs they’ve written together. This one has a warm, old-time string band and old school country feel to most of it, and Lauderdale’s melodies suit Hunter’s words beautifully. Why is this such a good match? I think it’s because Hunter is so steeped in traditional folk and country music and he understands the emotional terrain, the imagery and the historical epochs those types of music often draw from (or can be set in), that it’s completely natural for him to write for these styles. He can blend in lines from other songs, old sayings, Scripture, even Shakespeare (he tosses in a little Macbeth on one tune) along with his own ideas, fancies and clever turns of phrases. So many of these songs sound like time-worn classics, yet I can pick out a Hunterism (or five!) in every single tune that places each of these firmly within his canon. I will resist the urge to quote from every single song, but will offer up this verse from “I’ll Sing Again”: "I heard the Memphis train speak to the moon/ Whipped out my fountain pen, wrote down the tune/ Don’t care if it’s been sung I don’t know when/ Such a good old tune I’ll sing again.” A great album!
Patchwork River (2010). This is much more eclectic (and electric) than Headed for the Hills, more musically “original,” I suppose, but is ultimately less successful in my view. Lauderdale ventures into blues, Memphis R&B, Cajun and more, but it sometimes feels a bit strained. Lauderdale seems vocally unsteady in places as he searches, not always successfully, to find the melodies for these words, and the production occasionally overwhelms the songs. Still, there are several nice numbers here, including the title track, “El Dorado” and “Far in the Far Away”—that last one sounds as if it’s from a honky-tonk jukebox circa 1958.
Reason and Rhyme(2011). This just came out in mid-June, and I fell in love with it on first listen. This time it’s a fairly straight bluegrass approach throughout, smooth as (corn) silk, and once again the more traditional song structures provide near-perfect settings for Hunter’s lyrics. Lauderdale’s lead vocals have never sounded more on pitch, and the bluegrass harmonies soar throughout. The characters are etched nicely in sepiatone, there are half-told tales of love and longing (and a “haunted history lesson” in “Not Let You Go”), echoes of America’s past throughout, even a spry anti-war parable called “Tiger and the Monkey” in which Hunter asks: “Why don’t we just postpone your war/ Clothe your hungry, feed your poor/ Before you take your sword up once again.” And you gotta love Hunter-as-curmudgeon on “Don’t Give a Hang,” which sounds like it could’ve been written by Webb Pierce, except in the ’50s he couldn’t have sung: “Don’t care for telephones/ That follow you when you leave home.” Another fantastic album from this flourishing partnership!
7 Walkers (2010). I’ve already expounded at length a couple of times on Dead.net about how much I like this album—which contains eight songs co-written by Papa Mali (Malcolm Welbourne) and Hunter—and this band, which features our ol’ buddy Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Papa Mali is from Louisiana, and Hunter has written a series of songs that are steeped in that world—the mysterious bayous, the clubs of New Orleans, a voodoo priestess, the mythic Evangeline. It’s some of Hunter’s richest and most evocative writing in years, and Papa Mali’s tunes capture both the thick, swampy feeling of lazy summer nights and the cracklin’ rhythms of the South’s greatest party town. Mosquito repellant not included!
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life. I don’t know what to say about this album vis a vis Hunter, as it’s unclear how he and Dylan wrote the songs together. Whatever the case, it’s neither’s best work. Musically, the album sounds like it could’ve been made in San Antonio in 1960, with lots of blues structures and Norteño textures (David Hidalgo plays accordion on it). Although no self-respecting producer from that era would have allowed some of these tortured lead vocals. (“C’mon, Bob, I think you can nail it with a second take!” “Nah, it’s fine.”) “Forgetful Heart,” “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” and “It’s All Good” at least feel original; the rest, not so much. I like its looseness-bordering-on-sloppiness, but a lot of the lyrics feel tossed off, and I can’t say there’s anything here that speaks to me particularly. Feel free to disagree.
The Furthur Songs: It’s been heartening to see that Furthur isn’t merely interested in re-creating the Grateful Dead’s glorious history, but actually wants to come up with new original tunes, too. From the beginnings of this band, Hunter has been feeding lyrics to Bob and Phil, and a fair number of interesting songs have already materialized as a result. “Muli Guli,” music by Phil and Bob, turned up a few times in 2010, but not this year, so far. Phil co-wrote “Colors of the Rain” and “Welcome to the Dance,” while Bob put music to two songs he says are part of a trilogy Hunter wrote—so far we have “Seven Hills of Gold” and “Big Bad Blues.” Somewhere up the road I’d like to look at these new Furthur songs in some detail, but for now, let’s end on this verse from “Big Bad Blues,” which, as is often the case, sounds as if it could be an autobiographical glimpse of Hunter the writer: “Found this card by the side of the road / Jack of Diamonds, battered and old/ Run down, rained on, filthy and torn / My own face, sure as I'm born.”
Whew, this turned out to be much longer than I expected, and I know I even missed a few (like that cool Bruce Hornsby-Hunter song, “Cyclone,” from BH’s 2009 album Levitate). Any favorite post-GD Hunter songs/lyrics that have struck you? Who has done the best work with Hunter since Jerry?
...a Hunter-Jesse McReynolds collaboration on the latter's Songs of the Grateful Dead disc, called "Day By Day" (no relation to the song from Godspell, which Garcia and Saunders played a few times).
I remember hearing something about a Hunter-DSO song a while ago, too...