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.
If ANY of you aren't hip to Wake The Dead, you should be.
You can go to their website & order any or all of the 3 CDs they have & I'm willing to bet you'll love them.
ah, the blasts from the past...
I never set foot in the place, but it gives me a pang to see the place nonexistent when I drive by, as it were. It was one of the more distinctive-looking clubs. The bands were not my style though.
Lyle Lovett did a nice verson of "Friend of the Devil".
covered Pigpen's "Operator" on his 2009 Red House release "River of time" and pretty damn good it is too. How many covers of Pigpen songs are there out there?
Bob Dylan used to perform "Alabama Getaway" in concert. I'm not sure if he still does.
as is probably known, there is a band from Massachusets (i think) that does dead tunes with a raggae bent to them.called 'Grateful Dread" they also have a web site where you can order their cd. they're not too bad. and their album logo looks cool too. hope ya like it. i do.
I can't believe no one recalls the punk rock version of "Truckin'" by the Pop-O-Pies, from the early 1980s. You had to hear it to believe it. Reputedly they did a great version of "Sugar Magnolia" into "Going Down The Road" in concert, but the time I saw them at Berkeley Square, they just did "Truckin." Like, twelve times. And then another song about getting donuts for cops. That was the whole show.
I was stoked to hear Willie do "Stella Blue" and was sorely disappointed at the result - just flat. Darn.
Just did look at the copyright on Deadicated - 1991. Long time. From it I especially like Los Lobos' "Bertha", Elvis Costello's "Ship of Fools" and, of course, Spear's "Estimated" - when he sings "way up the middle of the air" it's Dead on!
The two Deadicated discs have some great, great moments, too. The first came softly on the heals of Jerry passing ('96) and I feel was an extraordinarily heartfelt compilation from top to bottom. Lasana Bandele's version of "Cassidy" will make you smile when you check his unique phrasing. The second one is all good, but it doesn't hold together as well as the first. The standout track for me is Ken Boothe's "Bird Song" - again, cool phrasing.
I loved Jazz Is Dead while it lasted. I loved "Laughing Water", the live one and a couple that circulate here as a vine, but nothing really tops the first. It was released in 1998 featuring Billy Cobham and called "Blue Light Rain". I love the whole thing but even if you were to hear only the first five tracks you'd be well-sated. "Crazy /fingers", "Unbroken Chain", "Scarlet Begonias", "Dark Star" and one written by Cobham called "Red Baron" are all ex.
I also like Wake the Dead - St. Patrick's Day Dead.
I know Feat have included songs and snippets in their sets so that's cool, too. What a legacy!
Surprised no one mention the album by David Murray, Dark Star, recorded in 1996. That same year Dylan was performing in Montreal, and performed a searing version of Alabama Getaway, where he was almost channelling Jerry.... It is rather odd that more Hunter tunes have not entered the general song-book--tunes like Ripple, Brokedown Palace, To Lay Me Down, Bird Song, among others are ideal for entry into the Great American Songbook. Friend of the Devil has been the most widely performed, I think.
Tom Waits doing Easy Wind - truly an inspired choice! I think we should start a petition. "I been ballin' a shiny black steel jackhammer..." ... like it was written for him!