When Dead.net’s Dead Covers Project began a month or so ago, I thought to myself, “OK, this could be fun. I hope a few folks send in videos, ’cause it’ll be embarrassing if no one does.” I further thought, “I’ll watch them all, then maybe recommend a few I particularly like in my blog.” Well, I’m here to report that after three two-hour headphone sessions on three different days, plus a bunch of scattered listenings of four or five in a sitting, I’m not even close to having heard them all, or even most of them. What an incredible response there has been, and more are comin’ in every day. This is so cool!
But I did want to make a few observations about the DCP and, yes, hip you to a few that have grabbed my attention so far. The Powers That Be at Rhino/Dead.net have their own favorites they’re promoting every day in February on the home page, and perhaps theirs and mine will overlap here and there. But what the hell, you folks need all the help you can get wading through the sheer volume of stuff that’s been posted.
First of all, hats off to anyone who had the cojones to actually post a video. Most of you are not professional musicians—some are, obviously—and it takes real courage to “lay it on the line” (to quote “Candyman”), baring your soul singing and playing these songs we all love so much. After all, there’s no prize money to be won, no spot on Grateful Dead Idol to be earned. We’re just having fun, digging each other. (But wouldn’t it be great if someone got “discovered” as a result of posting a video here? And hopefully not for being the next William Hung!)
The range of musical skills on display in the dozens of videos is amazing—everything from novice strummers to virtuosos. There are some simple voice-and-guitar versions of songs that are as inspired as full-band, jammed-out, fingers-flying workouts by established groups. There are blown lyrics, clams galore, singers who are melody-challenged or singing and playing in different keys. What can I say? Music is hard, and as we all know, the Grateful Dead were guilty of every one of those infractions many times. I would never be so rude as to point to any examples (“no naming and shaming,” we used to say as parents of young kids), but a few are pretty hilarious. Some have evidently never heard the expression “Take two!”
The audio and video quality is similarly disparate, which is to be expected when people are using everything from iPads to smartphones to a wide range of cheap and expensive video cameras—usually a single one mounted on a tripod, often far away from the stage to capture the entire band in the shot. A number of entries came in without live video; instead they go a more conceptual route, interspersing still photos of their band or shots of outer space or whatever seemed like it worked with the music. There is a long tradition of that on YouTube (as well as using a single static image with music playing over it), so if you have the attention span to listen, you might unearth some gems among those, too. Audio from a distant camera can be dodgy, depending on the room and how loud the musicians are playing, but even a soundboard feed is no guarantee of good mix.
One thing I really got off on is the tremendous variety of settings this music gets played in. Aside from innumerable living rooms, bedrooms and basements—many appointed with Grateful Dead art and memorabilia—there is a staggering array of venues, from low stages in public parks, to small clubs with tiny stages, to echo-y warehouse spaces, restaurants, cafés, breweries (indoors and out), wineries, barns, a recording studio, even a bowling alley (OK, that one, Scarlet Mountain’s “Cassidy,” wasn’t one they posted for the DCP, but I found it when I looked for more by the band). It’s fun watching the crowds dance to the music or listening attentively or singing along (or doing all three). And when it is just a solo performer self-shot in a room, it’s interesting to see up-close how they embody the song and communicate the emotional content of the lyrics. A lot of soulful folks out there! There’s considerable geographic diversity, too—we are, in fact, everywhere.
Most common songs? Hard to say. We’ll have to wait for DCPbase to come out! There are a lot of versions of “Ripple,” as you might expect (hey, even I can play that one), along with multiples of “Jack Straw,” “Sugaree,” “Deal,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Dark Star.” But there are also versions of “China Doll,” “Comes a Time,” “So Many Roads,” a solo piano version of “Mountains of the Moon,” you-name-it; plus all sorts of songs that the Dead and Garcia covered—everything counts! Many serious regionally popular Dead cover bands are represented, from Cubensis to Double Dose to Forgotten Space, and they are, by and large, all talented, but most of the people in the DCP are just your friends and neighbors who said, “What hell, I love this song and want to share it with my Dead Head brothers and sisters.”
I came away feeling heartened that so many people care enough about this music that they want to play it, whether alone or with others, and that in every corner of our nation, people young and old are enjoying these songs and the musicians who perform them.
So, without further ado, here are 15 DCP videos I really enjoyed, in no particular order. A few I’ve included for their quirkiness:
Craig Yarborough: “China Doll.” Beautifully played instrumental version using acoustic guitar, mandolin and live looped parts
Kind Buds: “Mystery Train.” Love the double-entendre of the name of this acoustic duo, who perform the Elvis and JG classic at the Warwick Winery northwest of NYC.
Grant’s Tomb: “Scarlet Begonias.” Spicy version featuring trumpet, two trombones and alto sax (along with regular rock instrumentation) from this Upper West Side Manhattan group.
Damia Timoner: “Cassidy.” Stunning solo nylon-string guitar instrumental version has a bit of a Rodrigo/”Concierto De Aranjuez” vibe. Nicely shot and edited. Turns out Damia is from Millorca, in Spain’s Balearic Islands.
Billy Brown: “Valerie.” I included this because it’s a great, underrated Garcia-Hunter blues that doesn’t get played much. It’s just Brown’s smoky vocals and acoustic guitar. Nice!
Punk is Dead: “Hell in a Bucket.” OK, this is way out of left field, more interesting than good. This group plays speedy punk versions of Dead tunes. Their “Friend of Devil,” also submitted, is twice as fast as this. I like their logo, too—a safety pin inside a Stealie.
Cosmic Charlies: “Uncle John’s Band” > “Playing in the Band.” I’m giving these guys a shout-out because they’re based in England and they play damn fine Grateful Dead. Not sure what their connection to soccer is, but this was a gig for the Cockfoster’s Football Club in the London borough of Enfield.
Bandofjimis: “Morning Dew.” As far as I can discern, the “Band of Jimis” is just one guy; can’t find a real name. This dude is quite a spectacular guitarist, and he tears it up on this explosive instrumental version of the “Dew,” on which he plays Strat against a pre-recorded acoustic track. Don’t miss it!
Brandon McCoy: “The Golden Road.” This gets my award for Most Original Interpretation. McCoy is a phenomenal acoustic finger-picker; shades of Michael Hedges and others of that ilk. He completely rearranges this song so that it’s barely recognizable in terms of chords or tune, but it’s still fabulous.
Sabertooth: “Uncle John’s Band.” Here’s another instrumental that’s quite original. The group seems to be two saxes, drums and organ (and organ bass), and the featured track is from a gig the Green Mill Lounge on Chicago. Unfortunately, the crowd is overly chatty (“Hey, morons, STFU… It’s ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ man!), but it’s still cool.
Hal Weeks: “Terrapin.” I’m fudging a bit here. Weeks actually entered a few other songs to the DCP, but I had seen this one a couple of months ago and liked it so much, I thought I’d offer it as a better example of what Weeks, an earnest autoharp player with a pleasing voice, can do.
Free Music Orchestra: “Fire on the Mountain.” I guess I like instrumentals. Playing live at the River Street Jazz Café in Plains, PA, this loose quartet—guitar, violin, bass and drums—sort of ambles onto the stage, messes around with their instruments, limbering up, then eases into a dynamic jam that eventually becomes “FOTM.” It has a relaxed but intense vibe I really dig, and I love the combination of electric guitar and violin.
The Electricians: “That’s It for the Other One.” I saw this East Coast group when they played in Northern California a few months ago and was really knocked out, especially by their much-heralded lead guitarist, John Zias. In fact, I watched the gig from which this long, spacey version of “TIFTOO” was broadcast live on the Internet, as it was happening. Now you can, too.
Sycamore Slough String Band: “New Speedway Boogie.” The SSSB is a new all-acoustic quartet (guitar, bass, mandolin, fiddle) led by radio host/writer/musician David Gans. This thoroughly professional video—multiple cameras, high-quality mikes; shot in a recording studio—was recorded at their first rehearsal and features a boldly original string band take on the Hunter-Garcia classic. (Full disclosure: David is a close friend, but I wouldn’t be recommending this unless I thought it was good.)
Forgotten Space: “The Golden Road” > “Dark Star” > “The Golden Road.” These guys get it. Performing at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, the North Texas group does a fine job on the bouncy “Golden Road” before launching into a ’69-ish “Dark Star” that’s both nuanced and exciting.* * *
Lastly, BJ props go to two of the videos selected by TPTB at Rhino/Dead.net. In case you missed it, the Rev Tor Band’s “Ripple” is such a charming video, you have to see it. It’s shot at a place called Java Joe’s Café in Lanesboro, MA, a funky little diner/café where the piano player (who’s excellent!) has his electronic keyboard up on the counter, the drummer is playing a snare with brushes, and the guitarist/singer and standup bassist are right on top of the folks eating and having coffee there. And I also recommend roxypuzzlepatch’s ukulele-and-voice version of “Tennessee Jed,” wherein a cute hippie girl (Stephanie Kotars) sounds as if she’s channeling Memphis Minnie… in Honolulu!
I’ll list a handful of new favorites at the end of each blog this month. Now you tell me which ones I should be checking out!