We already counted down the 50 Best Cover Songs of 2018 but, inevitably, many of our staff’s personal favorites get left off. So, before we begin scouting for what might become the best cover of 2019, we share the best of the rest, an unranked hodgepodge of worthy covers that only just missed our year-end countdown.
History has been kind to the legacies of perceived second-bananas John Oates and Bob Weir. In a recent comedy special, Chris Rock noted how Oates deserves just as much credit as Daryl Hall for their long running partnership. “I don’t know what Oates does,” Rock quipped. “But Hall never had a hit record without him.” Similarly, Weir was always perceived to be second to Jerry Garcia during the lifespan of the the Grateful Dead. But in the two decades since Jerry’s death he has played an essential role in keeping the spirit of the band alive.
Oates and Weir recently teamed up during an Oates solo performance at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California. It was an encore of their previous pairing at the venue in 2015. Weir blends in so well with Oates’ band that one hopes they make a habit out of this.
In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.
Singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm boasts a lot of experience with collaboration. Her new album To Rise You Gotta Fall (hear a track below) features two co-writes with her friend Ryan Adams, and in recent years she’s toured in Phil Lesh’s band and as part of the Incredible Stringdusters. When last I saw her live, she was singing “The Weight” in Levon’s barn as part of Amy Helm’s female-musicians collective Skylark.
So as someone who knows how different musicians and genres can blend to create unexpected classics, it’s no surprise she’s a fan of cover songs. She used to record amazing covers with her band while driving the van, and her new album includes a powerful blast through Dan Penn’s “I Hate You” (appropriate for a divorce record). And she digs deep in her cover recommendations below, going from a certain song you might remember from last month’s Best Beyoncé Covers countdown to a nod to a Grateful Dead song she has sung with Lesh himself. Check out Nicki’s picks below.
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.”
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.
“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.