Jul 142023

Go back to the beginning.

20. Suzanne Vega — China Doll

You might notice a number of the songs we present here come from Deadicated, the stellar tribute album that we liked so much here. This is my personal favorite on the album, although I find it hard to separate it from “Cassidy” on the same album and following on immediately afterwards, so much that they near-segue together. Vega has a chillingly smooth voice, almost devoid of emotion, which seems to carry an extra dose of aching beauty. She hasn’t tackled that many covers over her career, but when she does, like this, it is worth the wait. “China Doll” is great, but go try catching the pair in tandem. – Seuras Og

19. Eggy — Just a Little Light (10/21/21 Charlotte)

In his 2015 memoir, Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann expressed frustration with the group’s final studio album Built to Last. He noted that the recording process did not allow the band to find the essence of the tracks. “Had the Grateful Dead survived through the 1990s and into the 2000s, some of the songs on what would become Built to Last would’ve certainly grown into veritable beasts.” In the case of “Just a Little Light,” it took a new generation of musicians to fully realize Kreutzmann’s vision. In 2021 the up-and-coming jamband Eggy delivered a fiery 20-minute live version of the track that captured the spirit of the Dead at the height of their jamming powers. – Curtis Zimmermann

18. Molly Tuttle — Standing on the Moon

Though Molly Tuttle just turned 30, she’s already a premier-level guitarist and vocalist. On her most recent recording, Crooked Tree, she was able to partner with roots music luminaries such as Gillian Welch, Billy Strings, Margo Price, and Dan Tyminski. The release won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Tuttle then issued a deluxe version of Crooked Tree with renditions of the Grateful Dead’s “Dire Wolf” and the old murder ballad “Cold Rain and Snow,” made famous by the Dead. But that wasn’t the first time Tuttle revealed her fondness for the Dead: In 2020, she unveiled a wide-ranging covers album titled …but i’d rather be with you. The album title is lifted from the Dead’s “Standing on the Moon,” track 7 on the covers album. Tuttle’s vaunted flat-picking skills don’t get to shine on this arrangement, but her voice sure does. Great backing harmonies, too, from Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. – Tom McDonald

17. Willie Nelson — Stella Blue

The original version of “Stella Blue” is gorgeous (never mind the myriad of equally fabulous live versions) but holy cow, does Willie’s 2006 swoony-melodic take from his Songbird album come close to capturing definitive-version status. This cover is actually a duet, but not in the conventional sense; Willie’s “partner” is not another voice, but the late Neal Casal’s unbelievably gorgeous guitar. His gritty, mournful, playing is the perfect compliment to Willie’s world-weary vocalizing. Majestic and massive. – Hope Silverman

16. Counting Crows — Friend of the Devil

Adam Duritz and the rest of the Crows have been playing “Friend of the Devil” together live for awhile, and this recording captures much of what makes their live version so great. Duritz’s pleading vocals are standard Counting Crows fare, but this track has a wonderful looseness to it that much of their studio work lacks. The guitar and piano solos feel just rambling enough and the sluggish pacing has a bit of drunken revelry to it. On the other hand, the harmonies are on-point and the production is top-notch. It’s a “messy-yet-clean” cover, and if you enjoy this one it’s worth seeking out their live 2003 set in New Orleans for all the mess and none of the sheen. – Mike Misch

15. Elvis Costello — Ship of Fools

“Ship of Fools” isn’t one of the Dead’s most popular songs, but it’s not shunned, either—it’s a solid middle-of-the-road piece. Listen to Elvis Costello’s remake, and you get why the original didn’t grab more attention: it’s too understated for its own good. The song has an inherent drama and edge to it that the Dead didn’t fully engage, but Costello meets it head on. Maybe Garcia and company had reason to be subdued: the ship of fools (according to lyricist Robert Hunter) was the band itself, with Jerry Garcia as their strange captain. Hunter began to distance himself from their company at about this point.

For this song of warning, Costello’s brash and punched-up approach works well. He probably liked the urgent, cutting lyric and its unexpected musical leaps. His all-star band, the Rude 5, brings color and dramatic lighting where Garcia and friends were content with more neutral tones. Not that Costello’s treatment is heavy-handed or forced. With the angular guitarist Marc Ribot on board, and mercurial drummer Jim Keltner too, there were bound to be choppy seas and strong currents on this sailing, making for a memorable voyage. – Tom McDonald

14. Bombay Bicycle Club — Terrapin Station

“Terrapin Station” is a difficult song to cover. The album version is a sprawling 16-minute, multi-movement, track that contains a fully-orchestrated finale. The Dead themselves never attempted to recreate the entire track live. Bombay Bicycle Club and Flyte reworked the song as a dreamy piece of psychedelic pop that owes just as much to the experimental sounds of the Flaming Lips as the Dead. Released in 2021 for World Turtle Day, the song was accompanied by a video that interspersed images of the performers with nature films of turtles. This pairing makes the cover the trippiest nature film you’ve ever seen. – Curtis Zimmermann

13. Culture — Althea

There is a particular lope to the music of the Dead, which, for convenience, we’ll call rock, and that lope makes it a perfect fit for the skank’n’sway of reggae. Reggae musicians have not been slow to pick up on that, and there are a whole raft of available covers. But, should you need the full immerse, you could do no worse than to search out the two volumes of Fire On The Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead, where a veritable feast of artists queue up to pay their respects. Spoilt for choice, Culture spring to today’s top of the pile, with their majestic take on Althea. Joseph Hill, the one constant in the group until his death in 2006, adds his inimitably smoky vocal, maintaining the melody and cadence, whilst a masterclass of choogly rhythms dance beneath his tones. From the horns, to the clarinet, the deceptive bubble of the guitar and the rocksteady anchor of the bass, it doesn’t get much better than this. – Seuras Og

12. Los Lobos — West L.A. Fadeaway

Most people agree that “West LA Fadeaway,” a song about the seedy underside of Los Angeles, which was first played live in 1982, is at least in part about the death of John Belushi, a friend of the band who overdosed in that year. But it also might have been an attempt by lyricist Robert Hunter to reach his co-writer Garcia, who himself was deep into his own drug addiction. The studio version appeared on 1987’s In The Dark, the Dead’s next-to-last studio release, which is generally considered their last good one.

Los Lobos toured with the Grateful Dead in the 1980s and 1990s, and Jerry Garcia was a big fan of the band. Their cover of “Bertha” is extraordinary as well. The incredibly versatile band, famously from East LA, covered this song on their 2010 album Tin Can Trust (which also includes another Robert Hunter co-write with band member Cesar Rosas), and it pretty faithfully recreates the bluesy lope and dark tone of the original. – Jordan Becker

11. Lyle Lovett — Friend of the Devil

Lyle Lovett’s take on “Friend of the Devil” is another favorite from Deadicated. Where the original studio version sets out running, moving along at a jaunty clip, Lovett takes his time, giving the outlaw-on-the-run tale consideration and gravitas. He makes it a lament, both with his pacing and the hurt in his voice. (Aside: see the woman swaying in the background of this video? That’s Julia Roberts, two years before she became Mrs. Lyle Lovett.) – Patrick Robbins


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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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