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.
I love the Jazz is Dead catalog as well-incredible song lists on all 3 CDs, and players not far from the Grateful Dead family tree.
Does anyone remember bassist Joe Gallant and the three live (2 for Relix and one for Knitting Factory) and one studio CDs (for Which? Records)? Some good fusion there as well.
One standout not yet mentioned is from the a cappella group the Bobs, on their '94 Rounder CD "Cover the Songs of...". They do a blazing version of "the Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)."
Here's one from left field--Matt Krefting "To Lay Me Down" on the Ecstatic Peace! release "I Couldn't Love You More."
I was fortunate enough to see these guys in concert at a furthur festival in 2000, they were playing the other stage, not the main stage. Best Dead sounding band I had heard, I had to come running from the other stage when they covered "Eyes of the world" I thought the dead had showed up. Very good band, highly recommended.
Dark Star: The Music Of The Grateful Dead
The overall collection is somewhat uneven, but I really enjoy his 16 minute take on Dark Star. The song starts with very airy, trumpet led, space segment. Murray's sax part becomes more prominent as the tune progresses, his playing evoking an intense post drums space segment. This leads into the piano playing the opening notes we all know so well. Well worth a listen.
...if I was gonna get one Grass Is Dead CD, which would you recommend? I think on their website they only offer "Grass Is Dead" (which looks pretty choice) and ""Built to Grass."
...is actually a bit of a disappointment IMO. I think I was the first to mention in print that he would be good on that tune (in my Golden Road article on the "Deadicated" album back in '91), but the version on his Songbird album is kinda noisy and ambient, whereas what I envisioned was up-close and intimate--the way he usually handles standards--with some of his amazing acoustic guitar work on it, maybe some tasteful piano and not much else. Instead he sounds kind of distant and apart from the musicians and I don't think he plays on it at all. Oh, well...
i gotta hear willie doing stella and grissman on dark star (cant belive i didnt know about that one)
i lost my deadicated CD somewhere
But I heard Phish do a cover of Terrapin (the full suite as I recall, but my recollection ain't what it used to be) that I quite liked. But in general, I prefer Phish covers to Phish originals on just about any given night...which, of course, is a different subject altogether.
I heard Susan Tedeschi slide the chorus of "Sugaree" into a cover of "Angel from Montgomery" that just electrified the crowd (both songs).
Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes did one of those transcendent "Friend of the Devil" covers that goosebumped up and down my spine for the entire song.
Joan Osborne on "Brokedown Palace," not bad.
Speaking of Jimmy Buffett, another vanilla cover that I like -- "Scarlet Begonias."
Off the top of my head...
The MSG network (Madison Square Garden) braodcasts some shows of musical acts from time to time and there is a version of Wharf Rat performed by Ryan Adams band with Phil playing bass that is stunning as far as I am concerned.
...by various artists. I don't think any particular type of music is immune to well-played renditions of Dead songs, it's just up to the creativity of the various musicians.
At this point credit must be given especially to Hunter and Garcia. The tunes are universal, but they're not.. It is a contradiction
A South Florida favorite is the Blue Grass spin off of the Dead cover band called Crazyfingers. Their Blue Grass band is "The Grass is Dead" and they have three CDs, self titled "The Grass is Dead", "Built to Grass", and "Twenty Degrees of Solitude" all three excellent. The band takes the Dead's songs to a new and different level with banjo and mandolin. A way better bluegrass version of Dead songs than the lackluster Pickin of the Dead.