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.
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.
My favorite Dead covers can be heard on the albums "Blue Light Rain", "Laughing Water" and "Great Sky River" by Jazz Is Dead. To my ears, this experiment was the best interpretation of the Grateful Deads music with contributions from Jimmy Herring on guitar, T. Lavits (RIP) on Keyboards, who auditioned for the slot vacated by Brent Mydland. I can only imagine how awesome the GD would have become with him as opposed to Vince Welnick. Billy Cobham and Alphonso Johnson were a dangerous rhythm section. When Cobham left the band, Rod Morganstein and Jeff Sipe took over the drum slot.
The tracklists for their 3 albums are as follows:
"Blue Light Rain" - Crazy Fingers, Unbroken Chain, Scarlet Begonias, Dark Star, Red Baron (the only non-Dead song on all three albums), King Soloman's Marbles, Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower > Spiral Stairway.
The Help>Slip>Franklin's and King Soloman's Marbles are nothing short of amazing. I think Jerry would've approved.
"Laughing Water" is basically a fusion remake of "Wake Of The Flood" which is a live album featuring guest musicians include Donna Jean Godchaux, Steve Kimock, Derek Trucks and Vassar Clements. The songs are Vocal Intro> Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo, Let Me Sing Your Blues Away, Row Jimmy, Stella Blue, Vocal Intro > Here Comes The Sunshine > 'Sunshine Jam', Eyes Of The World, Two Sisters and Weather Report Suite.
Their third album "Great Sky River" is another live offering. The songs are China Cat Sunflower, Estimated Prophet, St. Stephen, The Eleven, Drums & Jam, Blues For Allah, Terrapin Station, Morning Dew.
If you are looking for musical fireworks in the form of prog/fusion, and dare I say, versions of some songs that actually surpass the original versions, then Jazz Is Dead is the way to go.
The Warren Haynes album "Live At Bonnaroo" has nice versions of Stella Blue and To Lay Me Down. Govt Mule and The Allman Brothers both have covered the Dead with many downloadable shows available.
...for Emmylou Harris to do "Box of Rain." And David Gilmour and his band to do "Terrapin." It also occurred to me yesterday that Bonnie Raitt could really nail "So Many Roads" (and about ten other Jerry tunes)!
I think the album is titled music from Cape Cod where a cover of liberty is sung by a female vocalist with a very good backing band. I heard it only one time years back but it got me thinking that certain jerry songs would sound great if sung by a variety of women. This one was a perfect example.
I always loved it when Merl Saunders covered Franklins Tower, Fire On The Mountain or Sugaree... or anything for that matter!
Two of my favorites are the great "Ripple" you mentioned by Jane's Addiction and a very nice "Row Jimmy" done live by Phish's Trey Anastasio.
...has done a ton of Dead tunes through the years, most of 'em really good IMO.