The Dead have spawned innumerable cover bands over the years, some of whom have gone on to earn enviable followings in their own right. In addition to well-known names like Dark Star Orchestra, hundreds more carry on the band’s improvisational legacy in almost every state, as well as several other countries. But the Dead’s legendary free-form jams and deft song-writing have also influenced countless other bands, many of whom credit the Dead for inspiration that may be difficult to detect at first—some fans of Sonic Youth, for example, were surprised when Lee Ranaldo discussed his years as a Deadhead and his admiration for the band (see his comments on Europe ’72 here).
Viva la Muerte, an up and coming band from North Carolina recently signed to New York’s Ex Umbra Records, just released their fine debut, All the Birds—a title that for Dead fans immediately conjures up “Brokedown Palace.” Lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Matthew Armstrong makes no secret of his affection for the Dead, although no one would mistake the album as a straight-ahead Dead tribute: Armstrong and his bandmates wear their influences lightly, creating a sound that is unique and contemporary but suggests depths that only come from deep learning and sustained immersion in a wide variety of genres.
That may be why All the Birds has such a haunting presence. Too many jam bands focus on the Dead’s skillful multi-voiced improvisational acumen without understanding its deeper roots in folk, blues, bluegrass, and jazz. VLM’s songs and musicianship are original and refreshing, and give the sense of a band that didn’t just study the Dead—they used the Dead’s approach as a template for their own education, going back to those sources and forging their own connection to those primal musical wellsprings.
Armstrong’s songwriting adds an artistic dimension to his other efforts, which include novels, short stories, journalism, and even critical work on the Dead phenomenon—an essay on his experiences in Dead cover bands was recently published in an academic anthology (Full disclosure: which I edited, and was delighted to be able to include). That adds a nice bit of symmetry to the album, as if we’re hearing the musical counterpart to his thoughtful reflections, which discussed the challenges and rewards of performing the Dead’s music. With his songs on All the Birds, Armstrong provides a powerful demonstration of what those rewards can be, for this is the kind of subtle tribute that also defined the Dead’s own approach to American roots music, honoring them while making them indisputably their own.
~ Nicholas Meriwether, Grateful Dead Archivist