Jul 142023

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

best grateful dead covers

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…

–Curtis Zimmermann


Feb 102009

workingman's dead coversI’ve been to Bonnaroo two times, but somehow the traditional vibe hasn’t hit me; I still don’t like jam bands. In fact, I may be the only person alive who prefers the Grateful Dead as an album band. In the studio they’re forced to keep a certain focus lacking in the twenty-minute jam noodles they seem incapable of avoiding live. Album-wise, however, this and American Beauty are certified classics. A few songs on the latter annoy me (read: “Truckin’”), but every song on Workingman’s Dead gets my toes tapping.

Jammy Dead covers abound, making this potentially the easiest cover disc I’ve ever done. I tried to branch out a little bit though so, while there are a few jammy elements, there’s also a strong jazz-folk current running through this list. Spark one up and turn on, tune in, drop out.

Indigo Girls – Uncle John’s Band

The girls keep the folk harmony styling of the first, but make it bop and roll. This and the Zevon below come off a hit-or-miss Dead covers come called, moderately creatively, Deadicated. [Buy]

Henry Kaiser – High Time

Piano jazz brings out the heartache of this duet. I can’t figure out who the female vocalist is here, but if you like the sound check out Eternity Blue, his album of Dead covers. [Buy]

Stiff Dead Cat – Dire Wolf

A unique name for a band certainly, but somehow their sound fits. It’s ugly, raw, and going slightly sour. Some fast-paced bluesing here, they go so far as to drastically reinvent the chorus with a completely new cadence. Once you get the original out of your head, it works great. [Buy]

Catherine Russell – New Speedway Boogie

Another one for the female vocal fans out there, Russell’s take grooves and swings propelled by a bassline worth of Phil Lesh himself. Many artists here rely on the harmony stylings of the originals, but Catherine proves she needs no help by wrapping her voice around each word so soulfully you know anyone else would just distract. [Buy]

The Waybacks – Cumberland Blues
[audio: https://ia902705.us.archive.org/10/items/waybacks2007-05-04.flac/waybacks2007-05-04D2T07.mp3]
It would be insulting to Jerry and co. not to include a live take somewhere in here, so here’s one by a band that shares the Dead ethos of sharing concert recordings. The Waybacks acoustic-bluegrass jam this one out to thirteen minutes, but you can find many more covers of it at archive.org. [Buy]

Emory Joseph – Black Peter

Another tribute album worth getting, Fennario: Songs by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, EJ plucks his acoustic along with periodic flourishes of drum, organ, or whatever else strikes his fancy. It gives the proceedings the ode of a funeral dirge, but slowly builds into celebratory gospel. [Buy]

Desert Rain – Easy Wind
[audio: https://ia800209.us.archive.org/19/items/desertrain2007-07-30/Easywind.mp3]
Another live one here, it’s the rare imposition of an electric guitar in this set. The guitar makes up for it by distortion-soloing throughout the song, vying with vocals and harmonica for brash attention. [Buy]

Warren Zevon with David Lindley – Casey Jones

One of my favorite songwriters, Warren Zevon is no slouch at the art of the cover either. Here he keeps the spirit of the original intact while mixing some fun rock vibes. Nice to see Lindley here as well who, in a weird twist of fate, has spent a lot of time collaborating with the aforementioned Henry Kaiser. Catchiest song about a cocaine-addled train engineer headed to his doom ever! [Buy]