Play Dead: Who can resist covering a Grateful Dead song?
August 5, 2010
At last spring’s Person exhibition, a group of works by local high-school kids at the Aspen Art Museum, one of the pieces featured a lyric from the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias.” This from a teenager who, if she saw the Grateful Dead at all, it was as a toddler, since the band’s lengthy, odd journey concluded in 1995. Seeing the lyric employed by a kid cheered me no end, as I was struck by the thought: This road goes on forever. When the world comes to its end, a 1977 “Morning Dew” will be playing somewhere. Part of the Dead’s endurance comes not from the listening, but from the playing. Covering a Grateful Dead song (or many of them) is an irresistible thing. When a group of musicians who don’t know one another come together to jam, some of the first common points of reference are from the Dead’s repertoire: “Bertha,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Me and My Uncle,” “Ripple.” The songs are structurally simple; the rhythms are loose; the themes tend to be universal; and obviously they are ripe for extended jamming. Perhaps the best part: Any garage guitarist diving into, say, “Deal” for the first time knows that, as bad as they might play it, there’s a version out there of the Dead f—ing it up even worse.Case in point on how inviting the Dead’s material can be: Last year, during a Los Lobos show at Belly Up, guitarist David Hidalgo began playing a familiar riff – the bluesy guitar line from “West L.A. Fadeaway.” (A nice in-joke: Los Lobos are from East L.A., and titled their 1993 compilation “Just Another Band From East L.A.”) It soon became clear how under-rehearsed (possibly unrehearsed) this was. Hidalgo remembered half the words at best; the rest of the players looked over to see what chords they should be playing. A train wreck in the making – except that “West L.A. Fadeaway,” besides being another in a series of cautionary tales from the Dead, has a marvelously simple set of chord changes (which explains why the first band I was in, the Limits, played it) and Los Lobos eventually found the groove.That could well have been a one-off effort, but no: “West L.A. Fadeaway” shows up on Los Lobos’ new studio album “Tin Can Trust,” released this week. Here Hidalgo gets the lyrics (based on the fatal drug overdose of John Belushi, who died in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont) right, and the band has mastered the chords, but the overall feel isn’t far from the shambling Belly Up version. This is about the jamming, with several healthy guitar breaks.The best cover version of a Grateful Dead song arguably is another one from Los Lobos (who opened a bunch of shows for the Dead in the ’80s). Their take on “Bertha” is raunchy, driving and milks every bit of pleasure out of the straight-up rocker. A studio version is the opening track to the 1991 tribute album “Deadicated” – impressive placement, considering the album also features contributions from Elvis Costello, Indigo Girls and Dwight Yoakam. (Worth noting: “Deadicated” was among the first such albums, with multiple artists paying homage to the songs of a particular act.) But when Los Lobos play the song live, it is invariably a highlight, and a live version is included on “Just Another Band From East L.A.”While the exceptional, but hardly prolific songwriter Marc Cohn battles another episode of writer’s block, he released last month “Listening Booth: 1970,” featuring takes on songs from that year. The song selection is sometimes overly obvious (J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” which has been covered to death), but the Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” is a nice pick. Not only was the song released in 1970, but it is about a defining event of the era, a commentary on the disastrous concert at California’s Altamont racetrack (which took place in December of 1969). Cohn’s take is a genuine reinterpretation, with an imaginative approach to the song’s rhythm and phrasing.Keller Williams is no stranger to the Dead repertoire; his 2008 live album “Rex” was nothing but Dead covers. On the new “Thief,” on which he is joined by pickers Larry and Jenny Keel, Williams covers all sorts of writers, from Kris Kristofferson to the Butthole Surfers to Amy Winehouse, but naturally the Dead are represented, with “Mountains of the Moon.” Not only is it a lovely interpretation, but it shines a light on a song that deserves far more attention than the Dead ever gave it.Rivaling Los Lobos’ “Bertha” for preeminence is the “Tennessee Jed” that opens last year’s “Electric Dirt,” the magnificent album by the reborn, former Band drummer Levon Helm. This is ambitious, with strings, horns, backing vocals, dynamic twists in the arrangement and a distinctively rollicking Southern beat and accent.Another 2009 album that opened with a shot of the Dead was “Under the Covers, Vol. 2,” a survey of the ’70s by singers Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. The pair, billed as Sid ‘n’ Susie, take a blindingly sunny ride through “Sugar Magnolia.” They picked the right song, at least; “Sugar Mags” – “She’s my summer love in the spring, fall and winter/ She can make happy any man alive” – is as unabashedly cheerful as the Dead ever got. But this version makes me think of The Brady Bunch’s “It’s a Sunshine Day.” And reminds me to put on sunscreen.Jerry Garcia’s birthday was Aug. 1 (the anniversary of his death is Aug. 9), and Warren Haynes, who has occasionally stood in for the late guitarist in various post-Grateful tours, has toasted Garcia in a big way. At the Aug. 1 show in Cocoa, Fla., Haynes led his hard-rock quartet Gov’t Mule into an instrumental jam that worked through themes in the Dead’s “Other One” and “St. Stephen.” Later on, Haynes sang “Patchwork Quilt,” the song he wrote about hearing of Garcia’s death, which kicked off an extended tribute of Dead songs, including “Sugaree,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and the ultimate vehicle for exploration, “Dark Star.”Joining Gov’t Mule for the nod to Jerry was singer-songwriter Jackie Greene, who has been a core member of former Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil & Friends. When he was tabbed by Lesh, Greene, just 29 now, had only a passing acquaintance with the Dead songbook. He’s warmed to it. In December, Greene made the three-song, downloadable “The Grateful EP,” which opens with a winning take on “Sugaree,” the tale of romantic ambivalence that was a favorite of Garcia’s, a staple of both the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band repertoire.The list of artists who have announced their affection for the Dead by playing their music ranges wide, a point made explicit in the 2000 collection “Stolen Roses,” which includes tracks by Patti Smith, the avant-jazz combo Sex Mob, punk icon Henry Rollins and the Stanford Marching Band. There have been several full-album acoustic/bluegrass tributes (every time I speak with Ronnie McCoury, the mandolinist of the Del McCoury Band who once sold Garcia two banjos, he promises to add to the list); two volumes of “Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead”; multiple jazz-fusion tributes; and a gospel tribute. Chipping in with covers of single songs over the years have been soul singer Joan Osborne, New Orleans favorite sons the Neville Brothers, SoCal ska-punk group Sublime, Brit rocker Elvis Costello, country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore, country-rock band Cracker, Americana singer Jay Farrar – and Bob Dylan and Jimmy Buffett. For my money, the biggest feather in the cap is that “Friend of the Devil” made its way into the setlist of Lyle Lovett. Lovett is known to cover other writers, but almost always picks them from his home state of Texas.On par with Keller Williams as the most prolific Dead interpreter is Bruce Hornsby, who was a regular guest player in the Dead in the early ’90s, but wisely declined to become a full-fledged member and risk joining the four other Dead keyboardists who found an early grave. (Weirder still: Scott Larned, the founding keyboardist of the ultimate Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, died of a heart attack at the age of 35. Which explains why many Dead cover bands leave the keyboard seat empty.) Hornsby litters his show with Dead references: a verse of “He’s Gone,” a jam on “He’s Gone,” his own “Sunflower Cat,” which lifts the guitar riff from “China Cat Sunflower.” “Here Come the Noisemakers,” Hornsby’s 2000 live album, includes a section of “Terrapin Station” and “Black Muddy River.”Probably the most frequently covered Dead song is “Ripple.” It is one of lyricist Robert Hunter’s best moments; the melody flows; the chord changes are simple. Among those who have covered it: Jane’s Addiction, Rick Danko, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Chris Hillman.Far as I can tell, Garcia was no kind of sports fan. But he would have loved the weirdness of this: On Monday, Aug. 9, the San Francisco Giants will honor Garcia on the 15th anniversary of his passing with a pre-game video tribute; a ceremonial first pitch by his daughter, Annabelle; the singing of the National Anthem by the Dead’s Bob Weir and Mickey Hart; and a seventh-inning stretch that will have Hart leading a 7,000-person kazoo ensemble in a version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Which was never part of the Dead’s firstname.lastname@example.org