May 182018
 
jerry garcia long black veil

Jerry Garcia was not exactly known for his talkative stage persona. Though the legendary singer/guitarist of the Grateful Dead was adept at providing quality sound bites during interviews, whenever he stood before a large stadium crowd he was more likely to tune his guitar than engage in the typical “Hello, Cleveland!” stage banter. That’s what makes his recently released cover of “Long Black Veil” so intriguing. On May 4, 1963 while performing the song at Top of the Tangent in Palo Alto with his then-wife Sara (Ruppenthal) Garcia, Jerry was practically Mr. Chatterbox on stage.

“We had a request, or at least I did, after this last set, to do a song called ‘Long Black Veil,’ which is a modern country song,” he told the crowd, during a lengthy introduction to the tune. “But it’s pretty anyway, even at that. It’s not even a folk song, or anything. It’s just a song. Somebody wrote it and it’s on records with electric guitars and everything. But anyway, it’s a good song.” The track was included on the new box set Before the Dead, which chronicles Garcia’s live recordings with various groups in Northern California from 1961 through 1964. Long before the days of YouTube, somebody was seemingly always following him around with a tape recorder.

In early 1963, “Long Black Veil” was hardly the standard it is today. Originally recorded by country singer Lefty Frizzell in 1959, it had only been released commercially by a handful of artists at this point. The most notable version was by folk revivalists the Kingston Trio in 1962. Many of the more famous renditions had not yet hit vinyl. Joan Baez’s live recording would not be released until November 1963 and Johnny Cash did not put out his cut until 1965.

Garcia’s take on the song is simple and straightforward. He plays it, strumming his acoustic guitar without a psychedelic solo anywhere in sight. His voice strains a bit as he attempts to hit the high notes. Listening to Garcia sing, it feels as if he does not quite know who he’s supposed to sound like. While the song is by no means an essential addition to the Garcia canon, listening this track, and in fact the whole collection, is a bit like reading the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Though hardly a finished product, the music provides a fascinating window into an artist developing and honing his craft.

Click here to listen to more covers of “Long Black Veil.”

Apr 302018
 
best cover songs april

April was the best month for covers of the year so far. There’s no particular reason for that, I suspect. These things just ebb and flow. But the fact remains that it was a proverbial embarrassment of riches, as the length of the list below confirms.

As always, there’s no quality difference between the main picks and the honorable mentions; a cover’s categorization is only determined by how much I had to say about it. Continue reading »

Apr 232018
 
laura veirs mountains of the moon

“Mountains of the Moon” is an obscure song, even by the standards of the Grateful Dead who had a habit of turning deep album cuts into concert staples. The group originally recorded it for their third studio album Aoxomoxoa (the name nobody can pronounce). Written by Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter and Phil Lesh, the lyrics resemble a lost medieval ballad: “Cold mountain water/The jade merchant’s daughter/Mountains of the moon/ Bow and bend to me.” One can imagine Tyrion Lannister dancing to it on Game of Thrones. Continue reading »

Jan 302018
 

mark erelli mixtapeMark Erelli seems one of the good guys: prolific in the often solitary and lonely furrow of singer-songwritery, under the radar of most observers, weaving his nuanced mix of country and folk that never fails to beguile my ears. Lord knows how he makes a living. Along with others like Jeffrey Foucoult (with whom he has collaborated) Damien Jurado and the Joshes Rouse and Ritter (another collaborator) he seems always there in the background, a reliable source of well-crafted songs, never troubling the mainstream nor stealing the show.

Although he has a healthy and extensive repertoire of his own songs, covers are very much also his stock in trade, as a visit to his website soon reveals, with a monthly free download of the month – often a cover – unavailable elsewhere. (As I write his excellent version of “Midnight Rider” is serenading me, the January freebie.) He also performs an annual series of shows entitled ‘Under the Covers’ – sadly in the wrong continent for this writer to ever catch. Continue reading »

Oct 312017
 
gregg allman cover

The histories of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band have long been intertwined. The two bands shared the stage numerous times in the 1970s. They covered some of the same songs over the years. Heck, they even shared members, with singer/guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Oteil Burbridge both playing with the Allmans and various latter-day Dead spinoffs.

Gregg Allman adds a new chapter to this legacy with his cover of the Dead’s “Black Muddy River” on his posthumous studio album Southern Blood. Written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, the history of “Black Muddy River” runs deep through Deadhead lore. The tune is a dark elegy, filled with longing for times past, but with maybe a bit of hope in the end. In Blair Jackson’s 1995 biography Garcia: An American Life, Hunter said that the song “is about the perspective of age and making a decision about the necessity of living in spite of a rough time and the ravages of anything else that’s going to come at you.” Continue reading »

May 022017
 
bob weir trey anastasio gaga

At the Grateful Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” final concerts, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio stepped into the Jerry Garcia role, playing lead guitar across five mammoth shows. They drew from a wide range of sources for their varying setlists, including plenty of covers – but the covers they chose were all songs the Dead had played regularly in the past (“Not Fade Away,” “Samson and Delilah,” etc). For the latest Phish-Dead pairing, though, they drew from a far less likely source: Lady Gaga. Continue reading »