‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
I’ve heard it said that one of the curses of having a hit song is that the artist is forced to sing it for the rest of their life the same exact way it was recorded. While that may be true for some artists (certainly for the Eagles), it has not been the case for the Grateful Dead.
Since they released their first album in 1967, the band has never viewed their recordings as sacred texts. Instead they treated their songs as blueprints, starting places to begin the next great jam. Every time they perform a track, it’s like they’re covering themselves.
Take a song like “Fire on the Mountain.” It was originally recorded by Dead percussionist Mickey Hart as an instrumental called “Happiness is Drumming” on his 1976 album Diga. Robert Hunter eventually added lyrics, and the band began performing it on their legendary Spring ‘77 tour. They later recorded a condensed studio version for their 1978 album Shakedown Street, sung by Jerry Garcia. Since his passing, it’s been performed by many Dead offshoot bands and sung by the likes of Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby, Oteil Burbridge, and, even reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Each version is so different that I couldn’t tell you what counts as the “original.” One can trace a similar pattern with many of the Dead’s songs through the decades — don’t get me started on “Dark Star.”
Artists covering a Dead song have an invitation to reinvent it, as if at the request of the ghost of Jerry Garcia. Given such freedom, it’s only natural that the Dead’s catalog has inspired countless musicians across genres to put their own spin on the songs. This explains why nearly six decades after the band’s formation, and with the latest incarnation Dead & Company wrapping up this weekend, the onslaught of covers shows no signs of ever, ever stopping. These cover songs guarantee the band’s music will live on long after the last remaining members have passed away.
Here is a list of our favorites…