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.
Back in 1999, I came across a CD titled Swingin to the Grateful Dead, which is exactly as it sounds. Dead tunes in swing, jazz and dixieland arrangements - horns and all. Oddly compelling and pretty fun for the occassional listen. Or I sneak it in where a "normal" Dead tune may not pass muster. Interpretations cover Touch of Grey, FOD, Bertha, Scarlet, Wharf Rat, US Blues, Eyes, Truckin, Cumberland, China Cat, Casey Jones and Ship of Fools. Outside the box for sure...
Hey, here's a Jackie show from last week back east. Got a few Dead tunes and a couple of his cool medleys of song fragments, plus lots of his regular good stuff:
new speedway boogie by catherine russell. Soulful, but too short...
That was a great band.
I was just thinking, too, that Greensky Bluegrass does a real nice China-Rider.
...and am happy to hear him sing Dead tunes any time. He's been known to do a really good "Scarlet" and "Deal" and "Brokedown" and a few others, as well. I still miss that version of Phil & Friends he was in with Larry Campbell!
I am surprised nobody mentioned Jackie Greene (or did I miss it?). He sprinkles a few Dead covers through his sets and does a great job. New Speedway Boogie, Sugaree, and Friend of the Devil (acoustic) jump to mind but he does others as well.
is actually related to Henry J., though where exactly he is on the Kaiser family tree I don't remember.
Thanks for the link to Kaiser site. I have wondered who he is for years now, having a venue named for him in the bay area and all. I'm listening to the Dark Star>Other One now and it is fascinating. It is some heavy fusion stuff with a crispy, unique 80's sound to the mix. Creative instrumentation with cello adding a lot of texture...also, cool whale sounds in there. David Gans plays on it, too. A favorite Dead cover experience was seeing Dylan and Paul Simon play a show together. Towards the end of Dylan's set he played Not Fade Away. It isn't a Dead original but my friend and I were jumping up and down freaking out over it. I had called it couple minutes prior. Dylan, were you listening?
Sugar Magnolia on their second "covers" album. And since the Bangles were so tight with the Dead and all, definitely deserves mention.
...which brings to mind "The American Beauty Project" a few years back. I believe Ollabelle was part of that, and Jorma, and a bunch of other talented folks... Can't recall the details...