When you think of Grateful Dead, Courtney Barnett doesn’t necessarily spring to mind, now does it? The alternative Australian artist has little in common with the iconoclastic American rockers, but that didn’t stop her from recording a foot-stomping rendition of a lesser-known Jerry Garcia composition. Barnett’s ghostly vocals suit the stinging atmosphere, and she sounds haunting over the thunderous, pulsating drums that plod in the backdrop.
There’s a sultriness to this rendition that isn’t heard on the original recording, and it’s fair to say that Barnett puts her own stamp on the track, making it a more immediate form of vocal, which is fitting because the song is rich with atmosphere and potential.
Barnett’s rendition of ‘New Speedway Boogie’ can be found on Day of the Dead, a busy compilation of Grateful Dead songs that were issued to the public. As if preempting the next generation of music, the collection shows the band in the next stage of their lives, as younger musicians pay tribute to the band that helped to make the 1970s the expressive decade it was. Among the artists mentioned on the album are Angel Olsen, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Friends and Kurt Vile & The Violators featuring J. Mascis. From the old guard stands Richard Reed Parry with Caroline Shaw & Little Scream, which featured a seminal contribution from The Band organist Garth Hudson himself.
The compilation was spotty in its delivery, but Barnett showed her versatility, capably making the tune her own, every note is sung with the passion she would bestow on one of her own compositions. There is no sense of levity or senselessness to the recording, and the songs feel like they were destined to become standards in a body of work that represents a legacy as much as it does life. Changing a cover to fit a person’s personal agenda takes effort, eagerness and conviction, but there’s nothing disingenuous to the performances heard here.
Indeed, the slower, more lethargic approach to singing has a flavour that’s enjoyable unto itself, which likely explains why the cover is the undisputed highlight of the compilation. Barnett’s own work takes grit, goodwill and general bonhomie to enjoy the trappings and tempos that make it such an enjoyable listen, but once the palette has been cleansed in an effort to enjoy the track enormously, the end result is something thoroughly enjoyable.
When The Guardian asked her to pencil her work, Barnett declared: “I love playing loud and aggressive and disjointed music, and I love that songs can have different lives. So I’m sure they’ll get a bit faster, get a bit more energy, get a bit more raucous. But what I wanted the recorded version to sound like was keeping in check with that sense of calmness.”
Indeed, this rendition of a Grateful Dead deep cut is very much the loud, aggressive, raucous rocker that she has made a large part of her trajectory and work. The songs cut through the audiences’ perceptions of her reality, and the characters that form her work- deeply invested in their understanding of the world around them – only goes to show that the singer is invested enough in their potential to understand the basic instincts in their own light.
Whether or not Barnett will continue to perform Grateful Dead covers in her solo set remains to be seen, but there’s no shortage of potential for the Australian songwriter. Such is her commitment to the work as a whole, she seems content in her delivery, passionate and fiery as it undoubtedly is.