Let There Be Songs to Fill the Air
It’s OK if you’ve never heard of David Gans. I hadn’t, and I call myself a fan of the Grateful Dead. I enjoy the music and the lyrics. The history beyond the basics, like where they came from, the original name of the band, the rotation of keyboardists, and many of the side projects, has eluded me. Rather, I didn’t care.
I just wanted to enjoy the music, like most of you. David Gans, however, has an understanding of the band far beyond what you and I could hope. He’s been a commentator, author, radio-show host, and interpreter of the Grateful Dead in every way for years. His CD It’s A Hand-Me-Down is yet another interpretation and expression of his understanding of the music of the Dead. This is my CD review.
For this compilation, Gans selected 13 tracks, many of which people might consider deep tracks, or at least easy to skip. To be sure, David did not create this album to mimic the sound or style of Jerry Garcia, but it does bring about a kind of Lonesome Prison Blues feeling in that it’s just a guy and his guitar. Where Jerry had bass accompaniment, David has his looper, a Boss RC-30.
Gans is an adequate guitar player, better than most who pick up the instrument. He is also a moderately good singer. I don’t think this CD is about his guitar playing or singing, though. And it’s not about the Grateful Dead. Listening to the tracks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Nor was I sure what I was getting. A few listens in, though, it hit me. This is for the word nerds, people who appreciate the way syllables lean against one another and the way a story is told. Words that connect with us to tell a story, but also to pull us from ourselves long enough to realize the words are about us. “Songs I cover from the Dead or other artists tend to tell a piece of my own story. It might just be one line or part of a line in a song that resonates in my own little atomic structure, and I don’t always recognize the connection at first. But eventually I find the resonances. I do the songs that I feel are appropriate for me, and I’ve adapted them to my own style” said Gans of the project.
That one line – that’s all it takes to make a lifelong connection with a song. “The grass ain’t greener, the wine ain’t sweeter, either side of the hill.” That line from “Ramble On Rose” has been with me since the first time I heard it. The music of the Grateful Dead is fun to listen to, and if you play an instrument or sing, it’s fun to take part in and recreate.
It’s A Hand-Me-Down Track Listing
“Stagger Lee” 4:02
“Lazy River Road” 5:45
“Ship of Fools” 4:06
“Looks Like Rain” 6:33
“Wharf Rat” 7:22
“Stella Blue” 6:03
“Black Peter” 6:34
“New Speedway Boogie” 5:40
“Terrapin Station” 7:26
“Attics of My Life” 4:53
“Brokedown Palace” 5:04
Many of the tracks are simple and raw while at the same time melodic and almost lullaby esque. “Lazy River Road,” “Attics of My Life,” “Ship of Fools,” these are simple. The stripped down versions make connecting with the lyrics more natural. “Loser,” “Stagger Lee,” and “Brokedown Palace” are a bit more intricate, adding fills and solos, but still remain relaxed – Sunday afternoon versions of themselves.
I have a new appreciation for “Looks Like Rain” and “Wharf Rat” after listening to them this way. The simplicity with which Gans performs these songs puts the focus squarely on the words.
These stories have been told and retold in nearly every way imaginable. Through Lonesome Prison Blues, I turned my father on to the Dead. It’s A Hand-Me-Down might be the bridge to the Dead for you or someone you know. Next time you’re hanging out with your music snob, grammar nazi friend (you know you’ve got one) throw on this CD and see if it changes their perspective just a little bit.