Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Best Covers of Dead Songs?

By Blair Jackson

My blog a couple of weeks ago about the new/retooled Persuasions of the Dead CD, on which the famous a capella giants tackled a wide variety of Grateful Dead songs, got me thinking about my favorite covers of Dead songs. Although the Dead will never match the zillions of new Beatles covers released every day, the number of Dead covers being released has increased steadily through the years, particularly since Garcia died.

The first cover a Dead song I recall hearing was folk singer Chris Smither’s version of “Friend of the Devil” on his Don’t It Drag On album back in 1972. I don’t have any figures to back it up, but I’m guessing that “Friend of the Devil” must be the Dead’s most covered song—it’s become a virtual standard in the acoustic folk-country-bluegrass world. (Has anyone actually heard the Kenny Loggins version of that song that Garcia says influenced him to slow it down post-’72? I’ve never found it.)

After Smither’s cover, however, I can recall very few other recorded versions of Dead tunes for the next decade and a half. Chris Hillman cut a nice “Ripple” on his 1982 album Morning Sky. And avant-guitar master Henry Kaiser—always an explorer of the first order—boldly put a 31-minute exploration of “Dark Star” > “The Other One,” along with the previously unreleased “Mason’s Children,” on his eclectic 1989 CD called Those Who Know History are Doomed to Repeat It. The following year, on Heart’s Desire, Kaiser and his band dialed up a live version of “Dark Star,” and then his 1995 Garcia tribute, Eternity Blue, contained still another “Dark Star,” plus a 30-minute, totally out-there voyage through “Blues for Allah” and several other Garcia-associated songs. All are good choices for you adventurous types! For more on Henry’s trip and to hear some cool tunes go here.

In 1991, an L.A.-based record and film producer named Ralph Sall assembled the first CD consisting entirely of GD covers — Deadicated, put out by the band’s label at the time, Arista Records, with proceeds benefitting a pair of nonprofit groups the Dead favored, Rainforest Action Network and Cultural Survival. The star power Sall mustered for Deadicated was impressive: 15 tracks, including such “name” performers as Los Lobos (“Bertha”; the song subsequently became a part of their regular repertoire), Elvis Costello (“Ship of Fools”), Suzanne Vega (“China Doll” and “Cassidy”), Dwight Yoakam (“Truckin’”), Indigo Girls (“Uncle John’s Band”), Warren Zevon (“Casey Jones”), Lyle Lovett (“Friend of the Devil”) and Burning Spear (“Estimated Prophet”). Two of the riskier versions were Midnight Oil’s “Wharf Rat” and a truly odd “Ripple” from Jane’s Addiction; love ’em both! Despite the diverse lineup, the album hangs together beautifully and it has survived the test of time. I put it on every couple of years and enjoy it anew each time. Too bad Sall didn’t get to make a “Volume II,” as he’d originally hoped. Unfortunately, Deadicated is out of print. Have a friend burn it for you!

But the flood of tributes really started after Jerry died. Some of them are pretty good, some are mediocre. A series of Pickin’ on the Grateful Dead CDs of bluegrass-style instrumentals have their hot moments (and poor choices). The two volumes of Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead feature an assortment of top names from the genre, including the Wailing Souls, Judy Mowatt, Toots Hibbert, the Mighty Diamonds, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. As with the Pickin’ albums, they are hit-and-miss—the occasional inspired interpretation surrounded by songs that sound like they are being unnaturally forced into reggae settings. The production on many of the tracks is cheesy and dated, as well. Still, a few winners in there.

A more unusual and, to my ears, successful musical marriage is the Celtic-Grateful Dead acoustic fusion by the Bay Area’s Wake the Dead, led by Danny Carnahan. The group has put out three excellent albums—Buckdancer’s Choice, Wake the Dead and Blue Light Cheap Hotel — that ingeniously blend traditional Irish tunes with Grateful Dead songs. So, for instance, “Scarlet Begonias” is bookended by a pair of spry reels, “Bird Song” blends with a number called “Coleman’s Cross,” and “Friend of the Devil” is preceded by fragments of “Banks of Lough Gowna” and “The Reunion.” Here and there the group also folds in bits of blues, old-time country and other styles in their acoustic mélange. I’m not sure why it works, but it does. Highly recommended! You can find out more about them here.

Another interesting anthology is the 2000 CD Stolen Roses, which was compiled by David Gans (who has recorded his own share of Dead covers through the years). My favorite track on that one is a wonderful version of “Dark Star” by the David Grisman Quintet (which you can also find on the recent 3-CD benefit set Jerry Jams & Jerry Cares, featuring a slew of mostly little known jam bands and other groups doing Dead/Garcia songs). Other cool performances on Stolen Roses include Widespread Panic’s version of “Cream Puff War,” Elvis Costello’s “Ship of Fools/Must’ve Been the Roses” medley, The Persuasions’ brilliant “Black Muddy River” and Patti Smith’s haunting take on “Black Peter,” recorded the night Jerry died.

Here are some other random Dead covers I’ve dug on some level:

Jimmy Buffett’s pleasant (if vanilla) take on “Uncle John’s Band” (on 1994’s Fruit Cake album); four very different versions of “Friend of the Devil”—by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Friends of Mine, 1998), Jorma Kaukonen (Too Many Years, 1998), Counting Crows (Films About Ghosts: The Best of…, 2003), Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (The Live Anthology, 2008); Sublime’s slightly twisted “Scarlet Begonias” (40 oz. to Freedom, 1992); Dave Alvin’s “Loser” (West of the West, 2006); Willie Nelson’s “Stella Blue” (Songbird, 2006) Levon Helm’s “Tennessee Jed” (Electric Dirt, 2009); Mark Karan’s “Easy Wind” (Walk Through the Fire, 2009); Jesse McReynolds & Friends’ “Black Muddy River” and “Standing on the Moon” (Songs of the Grateful Dead, 2010); Los Lobos’ “West L.A. Fadeaway” (Tin Can Trust, 2010); and Bruce Hornsby’s “Standing on the Moon” (Bride of the Noisemakers, 2011).

That barely scratches the surface, of course. What are some of your favorites? For the purposes of this discussion, lets not include Grateful Dead cover bands (DSO and their ilk) or Grateful Dead band members’ solo groups.

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tennessee john's picture
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Joined: Jul 29 2013
Thanks Anna!

I'm putting that one on my Christmas wish list. Sounds great. I really like the Deadicated album. Especially, Costello's Ship Of Fools & Jane's Addiction's Ripple. To address the matter of the slowed down Friend Of The Devil. I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Jerry was inspired to slow it down from Kenny Loggins. I may be wrong though?

Anna rRxia's picture
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Joined: Dec 25 2009
Blue Grass Dead

Can't believe nobody mentioned this band "Dead Grass" featuring Vassar Clements:

Brown-Eyed Woman; Casey Jones; Attics Of My Life: Brokedown Palace; Alabama Getaway; Ripple; U.S. Blues; Dire Wolf; Friend Of The Devil; It Must Have Been The Roses; Mexicali Blues

I liked the Reggae versions and the one by other famous musicians (Costello) and such. But this is my favorite!

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
might be

the pop o' pies, if I recall correctly.

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Joined: Dec 11 2008
Truckin' cover

I heard a great cover of Truckin' on Sirius Grateful Dead channel. Very punk, very clever change of lyrics, started out standard, but sped up quick. Anyone know who the band might be? Repo

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Joined: Sep 23 2008
Slowed down Friend of the Devil

The version Jerry was influenced by was done by Chris Smither although his version isn't that slow. Not as slow as Jerry slowed it down. I love the version of Black Muddy River done by Norma Waterson.

Mr.TheEleven's picture
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Joined: Nov 28 2010
Punk is Dead ...

is an L.A. hardcore punk band that plays Dead covers.
Despite their love of the Dead, I'm not sure Dead songs translate very well to the hardcore louder! faster! punk genre.
You can sample some on their Facebook page and decide for yourself:
http://www.facebook.com/punkisdeadband

teanders999's picture
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Joined: May 11 2009
Ha! God, yes...

Saw Dylan do Alabama Getaway at a hometown show here in the Twin Cities and had forgotten all abot it. Took half the song to figure out what he was singing, but it was good from there...

teanders999's picture
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Joined: May 11 2009
This may be cheating...

because they were opening for the boys at the time, but I saw Indigo Girls do a killer Uncle John's Band at the Oregon State football stadium (Autzen Stadium?) in, maybe, 1991. "...Sister, well I declare, have you seen the like?" Very nice start to a very nice evening.

Underthevolcano's picture
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Joined: Feb 6 2008
Widespread Panic

I haven't read this whole thread so maybe someone has mentioned already that Panic is doing/has done some exciting Dead covers. Also, Schools is playing bass with Mickey.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
I DID check it out!

Very cool and, for me, quite moving. The roar that goes up when people realize what's being played--wow, must've been something to be there on that night. I got a little chill up the spine... And by "Inspiration move me brightly" I had a little lump in my throat. Though I am not really a Phish fan, as I've said, I do root for them, and I know what Jerry and the Dead meant to them. At the same time, I also appreciate that they've tried very hard to distance themselves from the Dead musically... but it's obviously part of their DNA! A bit of confusion on the ending instrumental passage, but still, all in all, very well done, lads! They aimed high and totally pulled it off!

Thanks for the tip and link, alex (and mary)!

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