All too often, The Grateful Dead have been oversimplified as a being just a “jam” band. It’s simply not the case. Dive past the stereotypes and you find one of the most essential influences on the American songbook. In many respects, The Dead tie together the past and the present. Their roots were firmly in traditional stylings of folk, blues, gospel and the like, but their catalog was still highlighted by their progressive rock edge. It’s not all far-fetched to call them the grandfather of modern American music.
On the latest installment of Bruce Robison‘s The Next Waltz, Shinyribs (Kevin Russell), Kelley Mickwee and members of The Band of Heathens deliver a beautifully soaring and emotionally charged version of “Brokedown Palace.” Found on The Dead’s 1970 masterpiece American Beauty, “Brokedown Palace” is a bittersweet hymnal about the inevitable final departure and long goodbye. Russell and company tap into a very specific rush of emotions that comes with “Brokedown Palace.”
While it’s most certainly marked by grief and remorse, “Brokedown Palace” is defined by its dignity and tranquil acceptance. Russell’s lead vocals are calm and delivered with a gentle ease that’s as soothing as can be.
“It is very much a gospel song about the end of a life,” Russell tells Wide Open Country. “At first, I didn’t really consider what it was about. I was focused on phrasing and melody. Once it began to sink into my conscience, the meaning dawned on me. Like many, I have lost and am currently losing friends to disease. The song suddenly hit me very personally. It became a meditation on mortality. I thought of specific friends, my own journey, my parents and the human condition. Suddenly, I was struck by the depth of this song.”
Recorded at Robison’s Lockhart, Texas studio, they tap into a sublime intimacy.
“With Bruce, it’s all pretty loose and organic,” says Mickwee. “That’s what I love about his process and the whole idea behind The Next Waltz. It’s all about collaboration and I’m not sure he even knows who is going do what when he puts artists together. It usually just falls into place naturally.”
Much like the original, Russell, Mickwee and The Band of Heathens Gordy Quist come together for sugary sweet harmonies and a warm glow. The meandering warble of pedal steel and heaven-sent B-3 organ come together for drifting moments of solemn serenity. Tears creep up on you in a soothing manner.
Originally written by lyricist Robert Hunter and Grateful Dead guitarist and founder Jerry Garcia, “Brokedown Palace” was almost exclusively as an encore closer to their shows. There’s a great sense of relief found in that presentation of the song. As Quist describes it, “Brokedown Palace” has a “healing power.” For The Band of Heathens, who have long covered the song, “Brokedown Palace” has a specific special meaning.
“One of the last times we played it live was when we were on tour in Europe last year. We had heard our good friend George Reiff had passed away. It was our way of saying farewell,” says Quist. “It’s a timeless hymn that cuts to the core of what it is to say goodbye to ones you love.”
While lines such as “going to leave this brokedown palace on my hands and knees, I will roll, roll, roll,” and “going home, going home, by the riverside I will rest my bones” certainly cut close and capture a pensive acknowledgment that our time has come to a close, it’s the song’s final verse that’s the most reflective.
“Going to plant a weeping willow on the banks’ green edge, it will grow, grow, grow” offers a deep sense of understanding. There’s a patience found here. We’re only leaving this world in one sense of the word. The heartache is only brief.
“When we showed up, it was immediately apparent everybody was welcome to contribute and collaborate as much as the spirit moved them,” says Quist. “We ran through a couple practice takes and then the tape started rolling. It was really relaxed and natural.
As seen and heard on the official music video, Robison, Russell, Mickwee, Quist and company have an uncanny chemistry. There’s a magic that fills the room that’s undoubtedly satisfying. The used minimal overdubs during the session and banked on that peaceful aura found within the live takes.
“I think the idea came from an evening Jack Ingram, Bruce and I and some other people were having a few beers,” says Mickwee. “There was a jukebox. Jack and I picked a few Grateful Dead tunes and that lead to a conversation on the broad scope of influence that The Dead has had on music since their formation.”
“As befitting the Grateful Dead, this session just happened organically. Some of the musicians had never heard ‘Brokedown Palace,’ and some of them knew it as a cornerstone of the Dead’s best work,” adds Robison.
Russell says that he was only familiar with The Grateful Dead in a broad, topical sense — staples such as “Truckin'” and “Touch of Grey.” It was on a friend’s suggestion that he start with American Beauty that his deeper understanding of the Grateful Dead’s work began to blossom.
“I have always been like a pig looking at a steam engine when it came to The Dead and their fans,” says Russell. “The vastness of their output and cultural significance is overwhelming to me. They are like The Finnegan’s Wake of rock bands. A densely layered canyon surrounded by forests dotted with tribes and wild animals. I was always a bit confused as to where to start with them. Every Dead fan is an expert, a mad scientist and a conspiracy theorist when they advise you on how to circumnavigate the Dead globe. So, I was always understandably hesitant to venture into their orbit… It was with American Beauty where I began to grasp their aesthetic sensibilities. I understood then their deep knowledge and love of the American musical journey. Their place in that journey began to emerge for me.”
In addition, watch behind the scenes moments and interviews with Russell, Mickwee and members of The Band of Heathens below. “Brokedown Palace” was produced by Robison and both films were directed by Spencer Peeples.