Five Notable Hours of the Week (aka the new Grateful Dead tribute album)
The first two weeks of May were uncommonly stacked with releases that already seem like shoe-ins for 2016 year-end lists, and next week is looking something like that too. This week is a lot slower, but there’s one release I’ve been looking forward to for years that’s literally FIVE AND A HALF HOURS long, which is more music than I often cover in this column. So in lieu of that, I’ve slightly modified the title of the column this week and will be using the piece to dive all the way into the new 59-song Grateful Dead tribute, Day of the Dead, that was curated by The National members Aaron & Bryce Dessner and is out today on 4AD. Like the beloved 2009 Dessner-curated compilation, Dark Was The Night, the album benefits the Red Hot Organization.
Length aside, it is truly more than your average tribute album. It’s carefully curated, and almost every cover offers a unique interpretation of the original. (There are a few duds.) But also, the existence of this album alone makes a statement. It’s probably an understatement to say that the Dead have historically been a touchy subject in the indie rock world, and this album gathers up some of the genre’s best names of the last three and a half decades to pay genuine tribute to the band. (There are a few artists from outside of indie rock too.) On the other hand, to Deadheads who think indie rock is just full of hipsters who can’t play their instruments, moments like members of Grizzly Bear and The National tackling the “Terrapin Station” suite may change their minds.
It’s not that I’m so naive and don’t realize why these worlds don’t often collide, but they really do have a lot more in common than either side often likes to admit. Indie rock is all about digging through crates for the best music that the mainstream world wouldn’t touch, and the Grateful Dead are one of the most important, influential, and beloved outsider bands of all time. Naysayers often accuse the Dead of playing long-winded jams without the ability to write songs, but a few bands on this compilation owe obvious musical debt to the Dead’s studio albums. Of the ones that do not, plenty share their approach to experimentation and earning a dedicated fanbase. When we talk about late ’60s / early ’70s counterculture icons and name Iggy, Bowie, The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, etc, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be naming the Dead as well.
As someone who’s first and foremost an indie rock fan, I’ve of course had moments where I’ve turned my nose up at the Dead and the entire jam scene, but really it’s pointless to do so. They’ve got a handful of stone-cold classic studio albums — Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, Working’s Dead and American Beauty (plus Jerry Garcia’s first solo album) — and plenty of other breathtaking songs throughout their discography, like the aforementioned “Terrapin Station” and the closing suite of “Blues For Allah.” The live albums are as addictive and mesmerizing as Deadheads say they are, and the current versions of the band that you can see live right now are too. Especially if you’re an indie rock fan who’s bummed that much of today’s indie doesn’t really “rock,” or if you’re tired of people standing around at shows with their arms folded, the Dead and other bands in the thriving jam scene could really fill a void in your life.
This Day of the Dead compilation often does a killer job of showing how fine the line between these two countercultures really is. My favorite songs are the ones that sound like they could be originals by the artists performing them, yet keep the unique flair of the original intact. If you’re still in denial that the Dead wrote great songs but you like Courtney Barnett or Kurt Vile or Stephen Malkmus, their covers (and several others here) may make it impossible to deny that fact any longer. There are plenty of other approaches taken here too though, including some wildly different interpretations. And since it’s the Dead we’re talking about, a handful of these covers are actually not of Dead originals, but the songs they were covering and turning into live staples.
It’s obviously a lot to unpack so let’s get started on breaking this thing down, song by song. There’s a stream of the entire thing at the end, followed by a playlist of my personal favorites, in case you want a shorter “best-of” type thing to ease into the album (note: most “& Friends” include members of The National, Conrad Doucette, Sam Cohen, Walter Martin, and Josh Kaufman.).
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1. The War on Drugs – Touch of Grey: For all the talk that The War On Drugs sound like (’80s-era) Dylan or Petty or Springsteen, or even Don Henley or Bryan Adams, there really isn’t enough talk about how many of their best songs sound just like the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey.” Naturally they sound perfect doing this one, even if it’s a little straightforward. It’s a fine way to lead the album. If you’re already a TWOD fan, there’s no arguing how magical this one is. And if you’re one of the Grateful Dead fans who doesn’t scoff at “Touch of Grey,” here’s your memo to get into The War On Drugs.
2. Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends – Sugaree: This one’s one of the major highlights of the album. It very much taps into the approach I was describing a few paragraphs ago, sounding simultaneously like a b-side off Muchacho and a faithful take on the original. Matthew Houck’s voice is perfect for it, and that timeless “Sugaree” melody sounds great with his recording style.
3. Jim James & Friends – Candyman: Jim James (and his band My Morning Jacket) already have a foot in the jam world, and there are probably exactly zero people surprised to hear he covered the Grateful Dead. (MMJ have performed live with Bob Weir more than once.) The cover’s fairly straightforward, not bad at all but not one of the more spectacular ones here.
4. Moses Sumney, Jenny Lewis & Friends – Cassidy: Jenny Lewis sounded fantastic on the “Sugaree” cover with Phosphorescent, but she can’t save this one. One of the few duds on the album.
5. Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison – Black Muddy River: Before Bon Iver’s breakout, main member Justin Vernon fronted DeYarmond Edison with three musicians who eventually formed Megafaun and Christopher Porterfield (aka Field Report). They regrouped for this comp, and brought Justin’s beloved ’80s cheeseball Burce Hornsby (who actually played with the Dead) on board too. This isn’t the only collaboration Justin is doing with Hornsby this year, and his love for him is clearly strong, but I can’t get past this one sounding like it’s only meant to be played in old dentist offices and bad ’80s TV dramas.
6. Ed Droste, Binki Shapiro & Friends – Loser: After those few so-so tracks, things get really good. Grizzly Bear co-frontman Ed Droste teams with Binki Shapiro (of Little Joy, and 1/2 of a duo with Moldy Peaches’ Adam Green), and offers up a heartbreaking rendition of this ballad. It doesn’t quite copy the original or quite sound like Grizzly Bear, but it’s truly beautiful and has a lot of replay value.
7. The National – Peggy-O: The National are obviously on this a few times, and their take on the traditional folk song “Peggy-O” (that the Dead played a lot) is the most National-sounding of all of their contributions. Matt Berninger’s sorrowful baritone and the minimal instrumentation sound right off one of the band’s recent albums, which is a welcome change of pace here. The National members will tap more into the Dead’s sound later in the album, but it’s nice to get this approach too.
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8. Kurt Vile and the Violators (featuring J Mascis) – Box of Rain: It was tough to deny that Kurt Vile’s masterful 2013 album Wakin On A Pretty Daze shared jammy folk rock vibes with 1970-era Dead, so it’s pretty perfect to hear him take on the classic American Beauty opener “Box of Rain.” Unlike his pals in The War on Drugs though, this one was never exactly proto-Kurt Vile, so his take on it is natural but still strays from the original. He also brings in frequent collaborator, indie legend, and axe master J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr) to give the song the kind of shredding guitar solo that the Dead really never went for. (J sings some harmonies too.) This is one of the very best on the album.
9. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Friends – Rubin and Cherise: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s (aka Will Oldham) folk rock was always more On the Beach-era Neil Young than Grateful Dead, though clearly he’s got an affinity for the latter. He was one of the artists quoted about this album recently, saying, “I have worked with a few people whose minds are brilliant and complicated, musically. There’s something about the Dead that allows these big-brained pickers to just chill the fuck out and feel good about it.” This one’s actually off the 1978 Jerry Garcia Band album Cats Under the Stars, and Will Oldham does a fine version that stays true to the original’s horn lines.
10. Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten & Friends – To Lay Me Down: Like the Ed Droste cover, this is another very, very gorgeous one. It sounds more like a Perfume Genius song than anything, even though he hardly touches the melody, and Mike Hadreas still sounds like he’s on the verge of tears like he does on his most devastating originals. It probably goes without saying that once Sharon Van Etten starts harmonizing with him, it only sounds prettier.
11. Courtney Barnett – New Speedway Boogie: It’s possible that nobody on this comp nails the mix of sounding like themselves and also like the Dead as well as Courtney Barnett. Her take on “New Speedway Boogie” has the same deadpan, relaxed vibe of her own songs, yet all the subtleties of this Dead staple are mostly untouched. It’s even more exciting to get one of the album’s biggest highlights from one of the most recent breakout artists on the whole thing. If you by some chance you’re sleeping on Courtney Barnett, stop.
12. Mumford & Sons – Friend of the Devil: The Mumfords can be sort of a punchline (the new Coldplay?), but their take on this folk rock classic isn’t half bad.
13. Lucius – Uncle John’s Band: Lucius apply their shiny harmony-driven sound to one of the Dead’s most well-known songs, which could be cool if you’re a fan. (Personally I am not, and this one’s a “skip” for me.)
14. The Lone Bellow & Friends – Me and My Uncle: This one sounds like what I was afraid the Mumford & Sons one would sound like.
15. Lee Ranaldo, Lisa Hannigan & Friends – Mountains of the Moon: I don’t care how too-cool of an indie kid you are for the Grateful Dead, you are not too cool for any member of Sonic Youth. Lee Ranaldo’s been praising this band for a long time, and hearing him take on “Mountains Of The Moon” is a real treat. While 1969’s Aoxomoxoa is best known for “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower,” the album is equally memorable for being the time the Dead took most advantage of the studio-as-instrument. Some of their finest psychedelic nuggets are on this album, and the folky “Mountains of the Moon” is one of the best. It’s no surprise that Lee pulls this off expertly.
16. Anohni and yMusic – Black Peter: This is one of the ones rearranged to the point where only hints of the original remains. Anohni and yMusic’s arrangement is great though; it’s an orchestral take that’s much softer than Anohni’s electronic-oriented new album, but no less gorgeous.
17. Bryce Dessner – Garcia Counterpoint: This is actually a Bryce Dessner original, which pulls both from Jerry Garcia’s music and Steve Reich’s. It’s seven minutes of sparkling, intertwining guitars, and fits perfectly on the compilation.
18. Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear and The National (featuring Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette, So Percussion and Brooklyn Youth Chorus) – Terrapin Station (Suite): I briefly touched on this one in the intro, but this is truly one of the strongest moments of the album. They take on the full 16 minutes of the “Terrapin Station” suite with serious finesse, nailing the Dead’s composition but still finding ways to make it their own. They really make it their own with the jammed-out section that has So Percussion really letting their freak flags fly in ways that even the Dead never sounded like. Many of the Dead’s covers are as (or more) crucial as the originals, and likewise, this version of “Terrapin Station” is as crucial as the Dead’s original.
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19. Angel Olsen – Attics of My Life: Don’t expect Angel Olsen in bare-bones form for this one. She’s harmonizing with backup singers for a reverby, choral hall-type rendition of this folky ballad. It’s a cool take.
20. Wilco with Bob Weir – St Stephen (live): This is one of two songs on the comp that actually has a Grateful Dead member on the track, singer/guitarist Bob Weir. Given that Wilco (like, as mentioned earlier, My Morning Jacket) already have a foot in the jam world and that Bobby himself is here, it shouldn’t be a surprise that is pretty faithful to the original. That’s not to take away from it all though. If Bob is gonna play his songs with younger musicians, give us Wilco over John Mayer any day.
21. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – If I Had the World to Give: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is back, this time taking what’s usually a sorta-psychedelic rock song and turning it into a weeping ballad with nothing but his voice and piano. He does a short version of it (under three minutes), and sounds great.
22. Phosphorescent & Friends – Standing on the Moon: Phosphorescent is back again too. It’s slightly less of a treat than hearing him do the classic “Sugaree,” but still another winner where Matthew Houck & co. sound comfortably in their own wheelhouse.
23. Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band – Cumberland Blues: The great soul singer Charles Bradley is no stranger to taking rock songs and making them sound like ’60s soul songs. He did it with Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” Nirvana’s “Stay Away,” and earlier this year he did it with Black Sabbath’s “Changes.” That one’s probably his best yet, but hearing him give the same kind of treatment to “Cumberland Blues” works just about as well. The backup singers on “Gotta get down to the Cumberland mine” are especially thrilling.
24. Tallest Man on Earth & Friends – Ship of Fools: Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places, but it feels like I don’t hear as much about The Tallest Man on Earth as I did in the late ’00s / early ’10s. That’s unfortunate, ’cause he’s still highly talented and this cover reaffirms that. It’s another that you could mistake for a Tallest Man original if you didn’t know any better, but with plenty of justice done to the Dead’s version.
25. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Friends – Bird Song: This is the third Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy appearance on the album and easily the best. Will Oldham and co. are so on point with that refrain and the recurring guitar lick that I wanna see him do a show with Phil Lesh or Bob Weir before seeing them again with one of their more obvious collaborators. And there’s not a person in the world who sings like Will Oldham (to my knowledge), so this basically sounds like a unique take by default.
26. The National – Morning Dew: Earlier I mentioned that The National’s take on the traditional folk song (and Dead staple) “Peggy-O” sounded more like The National than anything else, but here the band go outside of their comfort zone. It’s another cover that the Dead adapted (Bonnie Dobson wrote it), and the Dessner brothers dive face-first into classic rock-style lead guitar more than they ever really do in their main band. Matt Berninger still has his trademark baritone intact, and the sounds all work really well together.
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27. Marijuana Deathsquads – Truckin’: If you know anything about the oddball collective Marijuana Deathsquads (members of Gayngs, Polica, P.O.S., and more), you know not to expect anything even close to straightforward here. This is by far the weirdest take on “Truckin'” I’ve ever heard.
28. Cass McCombs, Joe Russo & Friends – Dark Star: Another jam-world affiliate, Cass McCombs, teams with Dead Family collaborator (and frequent Cass collaborator) Joe Russo, The National’s Aaron Dessner & Scott Devendorf, The Walkmen’s Walter Martin, Conrad Doucette and Josh Kaufman for the beloved live staple “Dark Star.” This one is pretty faithful to the ways the Dead have done it, but it’s so expertly-executed (and so trippy) that it’s too exciting to be worried about that. Like I said about Will Oldham, can we please get a Phil Lesh & Friends show with Cass McCombs?! (On a related note, this is a good time to remind you to check out Cass and Phil Lesh collaborator Neal Casal’s new band The Skiffle Players if you haven’t already.)
29. Nightfall of Diamonds – Nightfall of Diamonds: If that “Dark Star” cover seemed short, it’s not over yet. “Nightfall of Diamonds,” in addition to being the name of a Grateful Dead live album, is the same lineup as the previous song and this is an ultra-psychedelic jam that flows right out of the last track. And actually, it’s part of a three-part take on “Dark Star”…
30. Tim Hecker – Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald: …It segues right into ambient great Tim Hecker taking on John Oswald’s interpretation of “Dark Star,” Grayfolded. If this trio of songs started off kind of straightforward, it certainly does not end that way. These three are must-hears.
31. Lucinda Williams & Friends – Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad: Alt-country great Lucinda Williams takes this usually-upbeat song, slows it down, and adds a heavy dose of melancholy until it sounds like something off this year’s great late-career album The Ghosts of Highway 20. She really makes it her own, and the words take on entirely new meaning with her world-weary voice.
32. Tunde Adebimpe, Lee Ranaldo & Friends – Playing in the Band: This all-star indie cast with TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and more start off doing a fairly straightforward version of this live staple, but by the free-form jam about halfway through (this song is almost ten minutes) it’s clear we’re not in Indie Rock Land anymore. It’s pretty easy to hear Lee’s Dead influence in certain Sonic Youth jams, and this ends up pretty much sounding like the middle ground of SY and the Dead. So yeah, it’s awesome.
33. Local Natives – Stella Blue: Stick to covering The Talking Heads, guys.
34. Tal National – Eyes of the World: I mentioned in the intro that there’s some non-indie stuff here too, and the next three songs (starting here) are three of the most interesting. Tal National are a Nigerian band who gained some recognition in the indie world after signing to FatCat. They do an awesome polyrhythmic take on the popular “Eyes of the World” that’s far from the original, but by the chorus will have anyone singing.
35. Bela Fleck – Help on the Way: The non-indie run continues with Bela Fleck doing a seven-minute banjo-fueled version of “Help on the Way.” The bluegrass-lovin’ Jerry Garcia (who Fleck has played with) probably would’ve loved this one.
36. Orchestra Baobab – Franklin’s Tower: And the third of three great non-indie covers continues with veteran Afro-Cuban orchestra Orchestra Baobab giving us a fun, funky take on another stone-cold classic. They don’t sound anything like the Dead (or sing in English), but you can definitely hear Jerry in their guitar solos.
37. Luluc with Xylouris White – Till the Morning Comes: After those three songs, Luluc and Xylouris White make a real nice transition back to indie land. It’s a delicate take that has major hints of the original but also sounds very much like modern-day indie rock. Good stuff.
38. The Walkmen – Ripple: At the risk of sounding like a contrarian, I just have no interest in The Walkmen post-Bows + Arrows, and this cover reminds me why. How do they take the one Dead song that indie rock fans already like and turn it into this whimsical, jaunty mess? Sorry, pass.
39. Richard Reed Parry with Caroline Shaw and Little Scream (featuring Garth Hudson) – Brokedown Palace: Ah, much better. Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry leads an impressive cast of musicians on this atmospheric take on “Brokedown Palace,” which manages to appease post-rock fans, folkies, and Deadheads alike. (It should, at least.) One of the definite highlights of the album.
40. Real Estate – Here Comes Sunshine: Real Estate (and their side projects) continue to have more and more Dead vibes as they go on, but they usually sound like the Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty era, so it’s interesting to hear them pick a song off Wake of the Flood. They make it sound more like Real Estate than the Dead’s album version (or any of the extended live versions), and they’ve got some real nice vocal harmonies that are more Beatles than Grateful Dead.
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41. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Shakedown Street: I don’t doubt that one of the Dead’s funkiest songs has been an influence on the funky psychedelic UMO, but — and yes, I’m saying this about a Grateful Dead song — Ruban Nielson just sounds too weak as a singer to pull this one off.
42. Hiss Golden Messenger – Brown Eyed Women: This one’s really strong, another that’s faithful to the original but could fit perfectly on a Hiss Golden Messenger LP (particularly his recent full-band album on Merge, Lateness of Dancers.) M.C. Taylor sings it more like Dylan than Jerry, but those guitar solos tap right into the Dead’s sound.
43. This Is the Kit – Jack-A-Roe: This Is The Kit take on the traditional folk song “Jack-A-Roe,” which is a great fit for them. Given their own sound, they actually make it sound more like a traditional than the Dead did. I would bet they didn’t actually base this on the Dead’s version, but it fits in nicely here nonetheless.
44. Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear – High Time: Half of Grizzly Bear returns, for another true highlight of the album. It’s an acoustic guitar-led take on the song that’s part Grizzly Bear, part Grateful Dead, but also not quite like either band. Don’t skip this one.
45. The Lone Bellow & Friends – Dire Wolf: I like this one more than The Lone Bellow’s other cover on this comp, maybe just because this is my favorite Grateful Dead song.
46. Winston Marshall, Kodiak Blue and Shura – Althea: If you needed a member of Mumford & Sons (Winston Marshall) to offer up an alt-R&B cover of the Dead, here you go.
47. Orchestra Baobab – Clementine Jam: That veteran Afro-Cuban orchestra Orchestra Baobab is back, this time for an instrumental. It’s as worth hearing as their earlier take on “Franklin’s Tower.”
48. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – China Cat Sunflower – I Know You Rider: Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus has acknowledged the Dead’s talent before (even if, while doing so, he called them “a fratboy stand-in for alternative”), but hearing him do such a faithful, jammed-out (this is over 11 minutes!) take on this Dead classic still feels revolutionary for indie rock. Few indie musicians do the whole disaffected thing like Malkmus, but he sounds sincere as can be on this cover. And the guitar solos are great!
49. Bill Callahan – Easy Wind: Bill Callahan does a slowed-down, speak-sung version of “Easy Wind,” which hardly sounds anything like the original. Cool take.
50. Ira Kaplan & Friends – Wharf Rat: Yet another indie legend appears in the form of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, who liked the Dead, then didn’t, then did again. On the ultra-classic “Wharf Rat,” Ira and friends tap into the kind of spacey psychedelia that so clearly left a mark on the non-jam world (and the jam world too). This is trippy, ten minutes long, and one of the best on the comp.
51. The Rileys – Estimated Prophet: This Eastern-tinged cover of “Estimated Prophet” is a far cry from the original, and pretty cool.
52. Man Forever, So Percussion and Oneida – Drums – Space: What, was there going to be an indie rock Grateful Dead tribute without some experimental percussionists doing “Drums – Space”?
53. Fucked Up – Cream Puff War: Even hardcore punk boundary pushers Fucked Up manage to get involved in this compilation, taking on the garage rocking “Cream Puff War” off the Dead’s first album, which is a good fit for a punk band. Plus, Fucked Up have been doing a lot of psychedelic stuff anyway lately, as they do here.
54. The Flaming Lips – Dark Star: Finally the punk rockers are taking acid! You can’t just name a release that and not genuinely find Ken Kesey as important as Keith Morris, which Wayne Coyne & co. probably do. It comes as no surprise that The Flaming Lips can do a wild, warped take on “Dark Star” that uses the original for a launching point but then goes totally into outer space. This another big highlight.
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55. s t a r g a z e – What’s Become of the Baby: I was talking earlier about how Aoxomoxoa is the Grateful Dead’s greatest moment for studio experimentation, and that never comes across more clearly than it does on the eight-minute mindfuck “What’s Become of the Baby.” s t a r g a z e trim their version down to under seven minutes, and they don’t use any vocals (the main version is mostly vocals), but it’s just as supernatural-sounding.
56. Vijay Iyer – King Solomon’s Marbles: Here’s another cool non-indie take. Jazz musician Vijay Iyer does a piano-only version of the instrumental rocker “King Solomon’s Marbles.”
57. Mina Tindle & Friends – Rosemary: Another very cool one on Aoxomoxoa is the psych-folk ditty “Rosemary.” It’s already a song I’d call ahead of its time, but French art pop musician Mina Tindle modernizes it even further. If you didn’t know the original, this could easily pass as modern-day indie folk.
58. Sam Amidon – And We Bid You Goodnight: For a nice and simple penultimate track, Sam Amidon does a quiet, folky rendition of the traditional “And We Bid You Goodnight.” It closed a handful of Dead sets (or, like here, was second to last) and of course is the perfect song for this spot on the album.
59. The National with Bob Weir – I Know You Rider (live): Especially coming after “And We Bid You Goodnight,” this feels kind of like an encore. It’s the second of two times an actual Dead member appears on the comp, and this time it’s with the guys who put the whole thing together. Like that Wilco/Bob Weir song earlier, it’s faithful to the Dead’s version of this traditional, and just a fun closer to the album.
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Well, there you have it. Five and a half hours of indie rock (and other) musicians covering the Grateful Dead. What a long strange trip it’s been.
Listen to the whole thing, followed by a Spotify playlist of my personal favorites:
ALL 59 SONGS
If you’re going to the Eaux Claires Festival in Wisconsin (curated by Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon), don’t miss the all-star Dead tribute with Jenny Lewis, Matthew Houck (Phosphorescent), Lucius, Will Oldham, Sam Amidon, Richard Reed Parry, Matt Berninger, Justin Vernon, Bruce Hornsby, Ruban Nielson, Conrad Doucette, Josh Kaufman and The National.