Jul 142023

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10. Laura Veirs — Mountains of the Moon

On her 2018 album The Lookout, Laura Veirs made a bold choice to include “Mountains of the Moon.” It’s a deep cut from Aoxomoxoa. It represents one of the first attempts by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter to write new songs using traditional themes and forms—a great development that gets off to a bad start here. The song is curiously strange, with its harpsichord, female choir, and a nonsensical lyric. The Dead dropped the song from live sets less than a year after it debuted in 1969.

Laura Veirs frees the song from its old trappings and adds a haunting atmosphere all her own. A barely recognizable Jim James helps out on backing vocals, and producer Tucker Martine performs his studio magic to help create Veirs’s lush soundscape. – Tom McDonald

9. Midnight Oil — Wharf Rat

“Wharf Rat” tells the tale of August West, a blind man who hangs out “down by the docks of the city.” The slow-moving track describes how West spent half of his life “doin’ time.” The lyrics touch on love, death, regret and redemption. Australian rockers Midnight Oil overhauled the song when they covered it for Deadicated. Vocalist Peter Garrett delivers it with a rough, almost punk rock edge, turning West’s tale into one filled with angst and anger. By the end, the tune is transformed into a fist-pumping anthem as the band shouts out “I’ll get up and fly away.” It’s like hearing another side of the August West story that no one knew existed. – Curtis Zimmermann

8. Ty Segall — St. Stephen

That Segall’s lo-fi garage fuzz psychedelia emanates from his love of UK space rockers Hawking should come as little surprise, his oeuvre a sonic chug of more bludgeoning impact than subtle char. So, this cover of Garcia and company is maybe a surprise. True, the production of the original is a little messy, perhaps the appeal. With distorted guitar and organ to the fore, ahead of a good natured full-on and full-speed assault on the vocal sections, dare I say he applies a little more fun than the Dead ever provided. It certainly makes me smile more, the near prog of the middle section delightfully erratic. The guitar then goes entirely feral ahead a total meltdown. From one of his covers albums, 2018’s Fudge Sandwich, which includes also songs originally by Gong, Amon Düül II, the Rudimentary Peni and Sparks. So, eclectic. – Seuras Og

7. Poolside — Shakedown Street

Los Angeles’ Poolside released their cover of “Shakedown Street” in 2020 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, and their dance music style is appropriate for this song which was at the time of its release in 1978 derided as “Disco Dead.” The sound was influenced in part by Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s interest in disco, particularly the Bee Gees, and the cover bops along, with some interesting electronic effects. As someone who was firmly on the rock side of the rock/disco debate of the 70s and 80s, it was not my favorite Dead song, but if you watch videos of the band playing it over the years, they look like they are having a blast, even as they incrementally de-discoed the performance. The band played a nearly-11-minute version of “Shakedown Street” the one time I saw the Dead in 1979, and while I don’t really remember it (it was the Dead and the ‘70s, OK?), based on the bootleg I have, the crowd seemed pretty pleased. – Jordan Becker

6. Norma Waterson — Black Muddy River

“Black Muddy River” was the closing track on the Grateful Dead’s 1987 album In the Dark. The track has the timeless feel of an old folk song and harkens back to the spirit of the band’s early ‘70s music. Gregg Allman, Bruce Hornsby, Greensky Bluegrass and the Persuasions have all performed great cross-genre covers over the years, but British folk legend Norma Waterson drew out the song’s folkier elements in her 1996 rendition. Singing in a husky voice, Waterson delivers a version that one would expect to hear in a rural English pub. Every old town it seems has a “Black Muddy River” that “rolls on forever.” – Curtis Zimmernann

5. Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band — Cumberland Blues

Charles Bradley’s electrifying rendition of the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues” showcases his unmatched ability to infuse raw emotion and soul into every note. His powerful, raspy belt is accompanied by a tight and groovy backing Menahan Street Band and female backing singers who assist with the chorus while he yelps over. Bringing together blues, funk, and rock into his soul gumbo shows why this is the best track on the epic Day of the Dead compilation…except one. We’ll get there. – Jane Callaway

4. Watkins Family Hour — Brokedown Palace

1970’s American Beauty (and its predecessor Workingman’s Dead) signaled a change from the psychedelia and free-form jams of the Dead’s earlier work towards more folk, blues and Americana sounds. “Brokedown Palace” is a beautiful, elegiac example of this style. Influenced in part by the death of Garcia’s mother, the song is a gentle farewell to her, and as the Dead sing, “Fare you well, fare you well,” it allowed listeners to let go of lost family, friends, relationships, whatever. Also, it became a perfect show closer for the band.

Watkins Family Hour started as an informal guest-filled jam at the L.A. club Largo hosted by siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek. They took the house band, and some guests, into the studio for an album of covers, including “Brokedown Palace.” Their version is more country-folk than the bluegrass one might expect from their backgrounds, and features Sara Watkins’ achingly beautiful vocal, and exquisite lap steel guitar from the great Greg Leisz. – Jordan Becker

3. Jane’s Addiction — Ripple

“Jane’s Addiction could be charged with homicide for the way they treat the pretty ‘Ripple,'” Q Magazine said in their review of Deadicated back in 1991. Other reviews used adjectives like “murky,” “loopy,” “eccentric,” and “real dopey raggedy-ass.” Now, three decades later, their cover still sounds fresh, thanks in part to drummer Stephen Perkins’ off-kilter lope giving the song a jumpy pulse it never had before. Perry Ferrell’s keening vocals and an arrangement that swirls where the Dead moseyed seals the deal. Jane’s Addiction hold “Ripple” near as if it were their own, proving how fortunate it is that the song’s path was not for the Dead’s steps alone. – Patrick Robbins

2. The War on Drugs — Touch of Grey

“Touch of Grey” is the Dead’s one-hit wonder from 1987, a late career crossover commercial success that initially seemed to be received as a joyful connection between the band and their dedicated fans. But it also turned on many younger fans to the band, eventually pissing off many long-time Deadheads who were protective of their long-gestating bohemian culture (and presumably angered by the increased demand for show tickets), which led to a predictable anti-“Touch of Grey” backlash. And yet, the song is a great single that hit at the right time. It’s a remarkably catchy tune about overcoming difficulties and surviving, and if that wasn’t the Grateful Dead, in the mid-1980s, then what is?

The War on Drugs’ cover, which leads off the Day of the Dead collection, is the kind of cover where a band takes a song and just does it in their own style. It’s clearly “Touch of Grey,” but it is also clearly The War on Drugs, who aren’t trying to sound like anyone else. Singer Adam Granduciel’s nasal twang may sound even more Dylanesque than usual. And, for what it is worth, he was only eight years younger than Garcia was when he sang the original anthem of middle-age survival. – Jordan Becker

1. Levon Helm — Tennessee Jed

In 2009, Levon Helm released his final album, Electric Dirt. Coming two years after his “I’m not dead yet” album Dirt Farmer, it saw him sounding better than a man who’d survived a bout of throat cancer should. It started off with “Tennessee Jed,” a Grateful Dead song that never saw the inside of a studio (its first release was on the live album Europe ’72). Larry Campbell, Helm’s guitarist on the album, picked it out. “‘Tennessee Jed’ was always one of my favorite Dead songs,” he said later, “and I thought Levon could actually be Tennessee Jed. And it fit like a glove.” Thanks in part to a horn arrangement courtesy of Allen Toussaint himself, the song sounds like it could have been a Band outtake from their peak years. No doubt it played a part in winning Helm the first Grammy for Best Americana Album. – Patrick Robbins

Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Pixies, Radiohead, Queen, and Stevie Wonder.

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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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