In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
When you consider their longevity, the sheer number and variety of their live performances, and influences as diverse as bluegrass, country, soul, rock, psychedelia, blues, and jazz, it is likely that the Grateful Dead may have recorded and/or performed more covers than any other band that is best known for its original songs. (There’s probably a wedding band out there that has a bigger songbook, but that’s not really the point.) Grateful Dead fans have been trading and cataloging their favorite band’s performances since long before the idea of digital music and the Internet even existed, and now there are numerous databases available online — one of which shows 343 separate covers performed by the band (and solo projects and offshoots), including soundchecks and performances with guests.
Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that Cover Me has never turned its lovelight directly on the Grateful Dead. We have written numerous times about covers of Dead songs, but a quick review of the archives indicates that only three covers by the band have been featured—Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried.” So, that leaves us a mere 340 to choose from today. To make this project (inspired in part by Phil Lesh’s 75th birthday this Sunday and by the recent announcement of the band’s 50th anniversary shows in Chicago this summer) somewhat less insane, we will limit ourselves only to recordings or performances by the Grateful Dead, proper — no solo projects or anything from after the death of Jerry Garcia.
Garcia was born in 1942, and his early influences were country and bluegrass music. He was later exposed to blues, soul, rhythm and blues and early rock and roll, and he learned to play the banjo and guitar. In 1962, Garcia met and became friendly with Lesh, a classically trained trumpet player, whose tastes ran toward the avant-garde. Garcia formed a bluegrass and folk band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions with guitarist/singer Bob Weir and blues-influenced keyboard player/singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. After hearing the Beatles, though, the jug band decided to move in a more rock-oriented direction. After recruiting Lesh (who had to learn to play bass) and drummer Bill Kreutzman, the group morphed into the Warlocks and played their first show in 1965.
However, another band with that name had signed a recording contract, and Garcia either found the name Grateful Dead in a dictionary, or the name found him, depending on whose story you believe – and, as all tellings of the tale include the involvement of psychedelic drugs, it’s really anybody’s guess at this point. They gained a following as a live act in the San Francisco Bay area and released their first album in 1967, after which second drummer Mickey Hart, who had a strong interest in world music, joined the band (where he remained, except for a brief hiatus in the early 1970s). For the most part, this was the core lineup until Garcia died in 1995 (except for the keyboard seat, which gained a reputation as the real-life equivalent of Spinal Tap’s drum stool).
The Dead were not only a band; they typified a lifestyle that extended the hippie culture of the 1960s decades after most of the world turned it into a punchline. Drugs, tie-dye clothing, and the freedom to follow the band around the country, sometimes hoping for a miracle, can be romantic and beautiful to some, naive and silly to others. Being a music blog, and not a lifestyle blog, we don’t judge, and focus instead on the music. But here again, we run into a split. For some, the extended jamming that the Grateful Dead was famous for represents adventurousness and virtuosity, while to others it means unfocused noodling and self-indulgence. Even among fans, most prefer the looser live performances to the more restricted studio recordings, but that sentiment is not universal. Still, if you simply look at the music that the band played over the years, it is difficult not to acknowledge that they have synthesized a remarkable number of strains into a distinctive, recognizable sound.
Considering the number of different musical influences that run through the music of the Grateful Dead, and their love and respect for not only their forebears but generations of contemporaries, it is not surprising that they chose to honor these influences with their covers. Rather than follow the traditional Cover Me “Spotlight” format, we will appropriately improvise a bit, and look at a selection of covers, by category (recognizing that they are arbitrary and overlap). And since every Dead show is different, we will not discuss the three covers that have already been featured on the site. We will, however, take look at a selection of their covers, in a long, strange trip that only barely scratches the surface of the available material.
The Grateful Dead – Cold Rain and Snow (Traditional cover)
The Grateful Dead – Me and Bobby McGee (Kris Kristofferson cover)
The first attempt to recreate the Dead’s psychedelic sound in the studio, the band’s self-titled 1967 debut was filled with blues, folk, and country covers, none more country than “Cold Rain and Snow,” a traditional song attributed on the album to Obray Ramsey. Although it is likely from the album cut’s groovy sonic experimentation and rocking edge that it would not have been well-received in the Nashville of the time, there is no question that the song is, at its core, from the country tradition. By the time they released Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in 1970, the band was deftly writing songs that easily would fit into the country mainstream, if they had wanted to go that route. As mentioned above, the Dead often covered Merle Haggard and were not afraid to dip into the country canon, covering, for example, Kris Kristofferson’s recently written “Me and Bobby McGee” on their second self-titled album, and performing “Green, Green Grass of Home,” made famous by Porter Waggoner, during their 1969-70 tours. Of all of the live Dead concerts that have been recorded and released, officially or unofficially, the May 8, 1977 show at Cornell University’s Barton Hall is often thought to be the best, and that show included this often-performed Marty Robbins cover, “El Paso.” And after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the band twice played Rodney Crowell’s “California Earthquake.”
The Grateful Dead – I Know You Rider (Traditional cover)
The Grateful Dead – Don’t Ease Me In (Henry Thomas cover)
The Grateful Dead – Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (Sonny Boy Williamson cover)
You can argue whether the blues or folk were more important influences for the Grateful Dead, and there are numerous covers of songs from both genres that would support either argument. Reportedly the first song that Phil Lesh rehearsed with the band, “I Know You Rider,” a traditional “woman’s blues,” was a staple of their live shows from the Warlocks days, often performed as the second half of a medley with “China Cat Sunflower.” This version was recorded in 1970 at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco. Ten years later, at Radio City Music Hall, they played a very bluesy version (featuring Garcia on slide guitar and nice organ by Brent Mydland) of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf and more famously covered by the Rolling Stones. “Don’t Ease Me In,” written by Texas bluesman Henry Thomas, was actually released as the B-side of the Dead’s first single in 1966 and was a live staple until 1995 before being re-recorded and released on the poorly received 1980 album Go To Heaven (which, nevertheless spawned a number of songs that became live favorites). Pigpen took lead vocals (and plays a searing harmonica) on the band’s version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (based in part upon a Buddy Guy/Junior Wells version) on their debut.
The Grateful Dead – Peggy-O (Traditional cover)
The Grateful Dead – Morning Dew (Bonnie Dobson cover)
The Dead were adept at covering both traditional and modern folk songs. “Peggy-O,” derived from a Scottish folk song “The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie,” about a thwarted love between a soldier and a woman, is one of their most popular covers, having been performed 265 times. This version was recorded at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey on September 3, 1977. “Jack-A-Roe,” another traditional ballad, was also a popular cover. Here’s a version featuring only Garcia and Weir on acoustic guitars, recorded in 1981 at a small club in Amsterdam. “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” an American folk song that dates at least to the 1920s, and was popularized by Woody Guthrie, was turned into a rocker by the Dead, as can be seen in this clip from 1989. Another regularly performed folk cover was the post-apocalyptic “Morning Dew,” written by Canadian Bonnie Dobson in 1961, which the Dead included on their debut album, basing their version on one recorded by Fred Neil. Early in their career the band also covered another contemporary folk song about damp mornings written by a Canadian, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”
Early Rock ‘n’ Roll
The Grateful Dead – Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover)
The Grateful Dead – I Fought the Law (Bobby Fuller Four cover)
Coming of age as music fans during the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is fitting that the members of the Grateful Dead enjoyed covering songs by the forefathers of rock ‘n’ roll, including a number of Chuck Berry songs, such as “Johnny B. Goode,” released on the Skull & Roses album. They covered Elvis Presley, including this incredible version of “That’s Alright Mama,” (written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup) from a 1973 performance with the Allman Brothers, featuring great guitar playing by both Garcia and Dickey Betts. During 1993, Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought the Law,” popularized by the Bobby Fuller Four, was often trotted out as an encore, including in this version from the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York. And the band played Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” hundreds of times, usually in a medley with “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad.” Here’s a version from September, 1975 recorded in Golden Gate Park.
The Beatles and the Stones
It would also be hard to imagine that the Dead could exist without being fans of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and they have, in fact, covered both bands. Here’s a version of the maybe appropriate “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” performed as the encore at a 1993 show at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The band also played “Day Tripper” a handful of times during 1984-85, including this set-ending performance in Portland, Maine. (See if you can hear the original salacious lyrics that Lennon and McCartney were later convinced to change.) Here’s a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” which was sometimes played as an encore during the early 1980s, from a Halloween performance in Berkeley in 1984. The Dead also covered “It’s All Over Now,” written by Bobby & Shirley Womack and released by the Valentinos before the iconic Stones’ version was released. Here’s a nice, jammy version from 1989.
The Grateful Dead – Hard to Handle (Otis Redding cover)
The Grateful Dead – Dancin’ in the Streets (Martha & the Vandellas cover)
This is another difficult genre to define, since it overlaps with others, but humor me. One of the most common covers performed by the Dead was Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Lovelight,” originally sung by Pigpen, and later by Weir. The 15 plus minute version from the 1969 Live/Dead album features Pigpen singing, proto-rapping and the band jamming. At Woodstock, the song lasted 45 minutes. This version of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” comes from a performance in Oakland on December 31, 1982, with Etta James (who has some issues with the lyrics) on vocals and the Tower of Power horn section. The band also regularly covered Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Streets,” with the extended jams of the 1970’s version preferable to the discofied later arrangement, typified by the official release on 1977’s Terrapin Station album. While Garcia often played the Marvin Gaye classic “How Sweet it Is” during solo shows, the whole band played it only once, in 1972 at the Academy of Music in New York (which later became the Palladium, and is now the site of an NYU dorm). And Garcia and the band deliver a convincing version of Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion” at the Fillmore East in 1971.
Bob Dylan, the titan of American music during the 1960s, was clearly a major influence on the Dead, and they covered many of his songs over the years. Garcia occasionally sang the great ballad “Visions of Johanna,” here’s a version from 1986 in Hampton, Virginia. Here’s a performance of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” featuring Weir on lead vocals from a show in Albany in 1990. And Lesh stepped up to the mic when the band covered “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” shown here, also in 1990. Dylan and the Dead toured together in 1987 — the tour, in which the Dead would play first, and then Dylan would join the band — was by all reports under-rehearsed and underwhelming, as was the live album it spawned. Reportedly better are collections of live Dylan covers released by the Dead during the early 2000s.
The Grateful Dead – Dear Mr. Fantasy (Traffic cover)
The Grateful Dead – Good Lovin’ (The Young Rascals cover)
The Grateful Dead existed from 1965 through 1995, and they would occasionally cover songs by other musicians that also recorded during this era which may not fit into the arbitrary categories above. “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” originally released by Traffic in 1967, was played by the Dead in the late 1980s and 1990, sung by Mydland. This version is from the Without a Net collection, released in 1990 and featuring performances from recently completed dates. The album is dedicated to “Clifton Hanger,” Mydland’s hotel register pseudonym, because he died during the album’s post-production. Vince Welnick’s brief tenure with the Dead often included a cover of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” usually, as here, segued into the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (with a little of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” thrown in). Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” was occasionally played, usually on Halloween, including this performance from the 1985 show at the University of South Carolina. Although “Good Lovin’” was not originally recorded by the Young Rascals, their 1966 version has become the most famous, and just a few months after its release, the Grateful Dead recorded this uptempo version at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, with Pigpen on vocals. Compare that to the more laid back Weir-led version released on 1978’s Shakedown Street. Finally, these days, it seems that any cover band worth its salt plays a version of The Band’s “The Weight.” It took the Grateful Dead until 1990 to do so. This performance, recorded on July 23, 1990, was the last song in Mydland’s last show with the band. He died three days after singing “I gotta go, but my friends can stick around.”
Expand your mind by buying Grateful Dead music at Amazon or iTunes. The amount of information available about the band in print and on the Internet is mind-boggling, but you can start on their website, or here, or here.