The National’s twin guitarists, Bryce and Aaron Dessner, spent much of the last few years curating and producing Day of the Dead, a Grateful Dead charity tribute album whose proceeds will go to the Red Hot Organization to help combat HIV/AIDS and other related health issues around the world. Like the Dessners’ first collaboration with Red Hot—2009’s benefit concert and album, Dark Was the Night—Day of the Dead features a murderers’ row of indie rock veterans, including Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Jenny Lewis, the War on Drugs, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Courtney Barnett, and the Walkmen, members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Grizzly Bear, and My Morning Jacket, and, yes, the National themselves.
Of course, talented though they are at rounding up other musicians, the Dessners are at their best when performing, and they showed it Monday night when their band, the National, visited the Late Show With Stephen Colbert to play “Morning Dew” from the Grateful Dead’s 1967 self-titled debut. The 1962 Bonnie Dobson original, which depicts a dialogue between the last survivors of an apocalypse, became a Grateful Dead staple and has been covered through the years by such artists as Robert Plant, Duane & Greg Allman, Lee Hazlewood, and Jeff Beck. The National’s version includes some nice organ-work in a nod to the song’s 1960s roots, but it mostly sheds the loose psychedelic vibe of the Grateful Dead recording. The band instead uses the Dessners’ distorted guitar lines and singer Matt Berninger’s deep baritone vocals to underscore the song’s haunting story.