Jul 142023

Go back to the beginning.

30. Mikaela Davis and Southern Star — Bird Song

Just 30 seconds into this performance, some listeners will want to press pause and say, “wait, I have questions.” The first question is: “A stringed harp? Are we really going to have an extended jam centered around a harp?” But as Mikaela Davis proves, the harp is capable of more possibilities than you knew. She even bends a few notes when called for.

The follow-up question might be: “Who invited the pedal steel player? Putting a harp and a pedal steel together doesn’t sound legit.” In practice, though, the two blend beautifully, at least in the hands of these instrumentalists. “Bird Song” is a great vehicle for a band like this. You hear top-notch collaborative improvisation from each player on the bandstand; their minds form one mind. The song plays the band. – Tom McDonald

29. Pop-O-Pies — Truckin’

When Pop-O-Pies formed in 1981, they learned how to play “Truckin'” and…that was it. “This was done because the band members changed so much, that there really wasn’t the time [to] learn any more songs than that,” they claim on their website. Their one-song live shows won them both irritation and fans (including Jerry Garcia himself). When they finally started playing full sets, two years into their existence, people wanted them to go back to just “Truckin.'” And the song itself? It’s a goof – “irreverent but tasteful,” as the band puts it, and it’s nice to know the Dead can enjoy a laugh at their expense. – Patrick Robbins

28. Holly Bowling — Saint of Circumstance

There is an entire industry of people churning out instrumental covers of classic rock songs. If you crave some Dead done in baby-lullaby-style or performed by string sections there are a myriad of unspectacular places to turn to hear anodyne versions of “Ripple” or “Box Of Rain.” But why in hell would anyone want to listen to those when virtuosic piano adventurer Holly Bowling exists? Both her Dead cover albums, Better Left Unsung (2016) and Seeking All That’s Still Unsung (2020) are full of jaw-dropping, ass-kicking performances, and feature playing that is both fascinatingly forensic and fiery. Her endlessly ascending cover of 1980’s “Saint of Circumstance” is an absolute freakin’ headbanger. Get exhilarated. – Hope Silverman

27. Catherine Russell — New Speedway Boogie

One of the lessons of the brilliant film 20 Feet From Stardom is that even incredibly talented backup singers don’t always make the leap to headlining success. Catherine Russell’s gorgeous, bluesy voice has supported many A-list acts, including Paul Simon, David Bowie, Al Green, Dolly Parton, and Madonna, and appears in numerous commercials. Her debut album as a leader, Cat, wasn’t released until she was 40, and it includes her beautiful, soulful cover of “New Speedway Boogie,” a Hunter/Garcia composition about the notorious Altamont concert in 1969. While the Dead’s version is a country flavored blues consistent with the spirit of Workingman’s Dead, Russell’s take is starker, and features her voice and stunning bass work from Jim Cox (and some subtle mandolin). Russell has released a handful of albums, and has earned a couple of Grammy nominations, yet seems sadly underappreciated. – Jordan Becker

26. Wake the Dead — Scarlet Begonias

“Scarlet Begonias” was first showcased in 1974, and appeared soon after on From the Mars Hotel. Whether combined with “Fire on the Mountain” in the beloved Scarlet->Fire segues or not, it’s remained a staple of the live act. Robert Hunter’s tale of an enigmatic encounter with a hippy painter in London contains the motifs of gambling and English folk tales and nursery rhymes.

The Wake the Dead project comes not to revive the Dead but to celebrate them. Their Wake is the aftermath of an Irish funeral, with the players all virtuoso musicians from the West Coast (of the United States, not Ireland). They often bookend their Dead covers with reels, and they expect you to be on your feet. At festivals, they provide a change in tempo and rhythm from many jam bands, and relief for the feet and mind. Part of their setlist from their inception in 2000, their version of “Begonias” might transpose Scarlet from Grosvenor Square to the Banks of the Liffey, but it has virtuosity and impact. – Mike Tobyn

25. Moses Sumney, Jenny Lewis & Friends — Cassidy

While laid-back, summery shuffle “Cassidy” first appeared on Bob Weir’s 1972 solo album Ace, it gained its real popularity through its regular inclusion in the Dead’s setlists starting in ’74. This cover was featured on the indie star-studded and lengthy 2016 tribute album Day of the Dead (organized by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National). Starring otherworldy singer-songwriter Moses Sumney and ex-Rilo Kiley Jenny Lewis, this galloping version of “Cassidy” is a fulsome and fabulous pop romp, helped in no small part by the assertive, handsome croon of Sumney. His “Cassidy-EEEH’s” on the chorus are especially glorious and feel like the sonic approximation of cruising down the highway, wind-blowin’, sun-shinin’, and radio blaring. Cassidy-EEEH! – Hope Silverman

24. Love Canon — Touch of Grey

Love Canon are skilled musicians who use a standard 5 piece bluegrass string format, sometimes augmented with fiddle, to illuminate hits of the ‘80s with “playfulness and reverence.” The Grateful Dead only had one real “hit,” and it is only in deference to their world-changing body of work that they do not appear on the Wikipedia list of one hit-wonders that we use here at the site.

Love Canon’s “Touch of Grey” is measured and melancholy, and is underpinned by Andy Thacker’s mandolin picking and singer Jesse Harper’s guitar. However there are many remarkable elements, including a violin solo that reminds one that with age also comes virtuoso experience and mesmerizing vocal harmonies. – Mike Tobyn

23. Jimmy Buffett — Uncle John’s Band

Yup, you got that right: Jimmy Buffett, the Margaritaville man, whose desert island escapism vibe is about as far as you get from tie-die hordes converging is stadium parking lots. But let’s just assume the Dead were a fresh-faced pop band–the Archies, say–and try and imagine how they might tackle this song. Steel drums? Check. Swirly tiki bar organ? Check. Hokey vocals with a chorus of grinning islanders, it’s all there. And, you know, it sort of works. Sure, nothing like the original, but isn’t that our M.O.? Hear it in the right frame of mind and you’ll be hooked. – Seuras Og

22. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs — Sugar Magnolia

“Sugar Magnolia” is not the most covered GD song, but it offers amongst the sweetest of earworm melodies. Which is something Sid ‘n Susie know all about. Sid and Susie? Sorry, that’s the affectionate moniker ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs and power-pop icon Matthew Sweet call themselves (Sidney is his first name). They have made quite the name for themselves, separate to their other careers, successively covering songs from the ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s. No stranger to these pages, either of them, with the last collab reviewed here. Their version is pretty faithful to an idea of the Dead, if not necessarily the original version, and is perhaps how you might imagine it were they, back then, a band with an eye on the charts. – Seuras Og

21. Bob Dylan — Alabama Getaway

Bob Dylan has been on a real Dead covers kick in 2023. So far this year, he’s covered “Truckin’,” “Stella Blue,” and “Brokedown Palace” all for the first time ever. He also has revived older covers of “West L.A. Fadeaway,” “Friend of the Devil” (in 2022) and what in this context we’ll call the Dead-adjacent “Not Fade Away.” Hell, he’s even started performing a 2016 Bob Weir solo track, “Only a River.”

Many of them are beautiful. He especially knocks a slow ballad out of the park these days. But for sheer fun, it’s hard to beat Bob boogieing and grinning through “Alabama Getaway.” He did it a bunch in the ’90s, his bandmates on backing vocals, and always seemed to be having a blast. Maybe that’s the next one he’ll bring back. – Ray Padgett


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  3 Responses to “The 30 Best Grateful Dead Covers Ever”

Comments (3)
  1. I had fun with that, thank you.

    Here are a few I like that are not on your list, but that I think ought to be.

    Hey, reasonable people can disagree.

    Friend of the Devil · Keith Greeninger & Dayan Kai: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgmhO9MCwwg

    Brokedown Palace – Joan Osborne: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gpuKkuPnuE

    Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Ripple: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnKxnrDDWuw

  2. Holy crap, this was a great mix! And I don’t even really dig the Dead. Tons of highlights here, especially the #1 pick … now I’m left pondering … did The Band kinda invent The Dead? I know, I know, the chronology doesn’t quite just add right up, but it also kinda does. Tennessee Jed sounds like The Band as much as it sounds like the Dead, which is remarkable, even though it’s a Levon thing of course.

  3. I really like Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison’s version of Black Muddy River.

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