The Grateful Dead are a band who have never operated within the mainstream. Look back through your record collection and we’ll bet there are few artists who can match the mercurial make-up of the San Francisco group. Led by a host of musicians including Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzman, Robert Hunter and Bob Weir, the band made their name as one of the most dynamic live acts of all time. Though their studio albums come packed with some serious rock ‘n’ roll chops, it was on the stage that they truly shone.
Part of their brightness was how they could interpret the music around them into an unfurling spiral of sonic delight. Using their own tracks as mere jumping-off points for frenetic jams with the band unspooling notes for close to 45 minutes for a single song. It was part of what made The Dead one of the most cherished bands of all time and encouraged their devoted fanbase, known as Deadheads, to not only follow them to the next city of their tour but, usually, accompany them for the whole thing. With such a faithful set of fans, the need to keep things fresh was far more apparent for the Grateful Dead than any other group around.
Considering the demands of playing to a crowd made up of a group who have likely seen your last ten shows, it’s no surprise that sometimes even the Dead would rely on a few covers to get them out of a jam here or there. In fact, so singular is the band’s sound that they soon began to incorporate covers in their sets as a matter of artistic principle — proving that, with enough wiggle room, any song can be a Grateful Dead song.
The group share a long history of making music for the fans. Creating tunes that they know will get their bouncing mass of fans into the dancing mood as they channel the vibes and allow their creative energies to reverberate around whatever venue they so happened to be gracing that evening — this was always the band’s direction. Across their career, they’ve taken on some classic tunes and, below, we’ve got the best of the best.
Naturally, with so many covers to paw through, the chances are that we may have missed the odd one but, that’s the joy of Grateful Dead. The group is so interwoven into the fabric of community they created during their three-decade-long career, that one can spend the rest of their lives unpicking the various threads and always find a joyful moment of artistic integrity and pure human connection at the end of every one of them.
One of the best ways the band show this connection to the world around them is by picking up some incredible covers.
The best Grateful Dead covers:
‘Around and Around’ – Chuck Berry
It may well not be the first song everyone thinks of when listing their favourite Chuck Berry songs, but ‘Around and Around’—the B-side to ‘Johnny B. Goode’—has had many admirers over the years, including David Bowie and The Animals. But, for us, there’s no better rendition than Grateful Dead’s cover.
A song they performed for over 30 years was almost perfected by the band as they delivered some searing versions of the song on stage. Known for their mercurial on-stage performance, the Grateful Dead know their way around a cover, and this one is simply brilliant.
‘Revolution’ – The Beatles
The Grateful Dead’s connection to The Beatles, the band who, at the time, acted as the most popular group in the world and the darlings of the mainstream, is deep but unique. Admittedly, it’s strange to think of a band of outsiders like the Dead being so infatuated with the Fab Four. However, the truth is, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the rest of the band were just like anybody else— completely smitten with the lads from Liverpool.
With such a strong connection and The Grateful Dead’s penchant for covering plenty of songs during their tours, it’s no wonder that Weir, Garcia and the band have had a go at a few tunes over the years. While there have been plenty of Fab Four covers of the years, it’s their sensational rendition of ‘Revolution’ which is by far the best, and it couldn’t be a more perfect crossover for the two bands.
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ – The Rolling Stones
The Grateful Dead may well be one of the most prolific artists at covering other people’s songs. Such is their live show set up that during their decades on the road, often exceeding two-hour sets at every stop, they were bound to cover a Stones song at some point in their career.
When they found the perfect noodling moments for the band’s 1965 single ‘Satisfaction’ something quite quickly clicked. The Dead takes the song into a brand new space and turn it firmly into one of their own. It was an uncanny ability they possessed in their iconic line-up.
Below catch a glimpse of the band in action back in 1982 performing the track. It was a song they kept in their set for some time, always manipulating and managing it at every juncture. It’s a real joy.
‘Forever Young’ – Bob Dylan
Following the tragic death of concert promoter Bill Graham, a gathering of musical acts and music fans assembled in Golden State Park to pay tribute to his life and legacy. Among the acts were The Grateful Dead and Neil Young who delivered a touching performance of Bob Dylan song ‘Forever Young’.
October 25th, 1991, Graham was in a helicopter on his way back from speaking with Huey Lewis at his concern in Concord, California, when the chopper crashed into a high-voltage tower and killed Graham and everyone inside the. The promoter was meeting Lewis to see if he would perform at a charity event for a recent firestorm in Oakland.
Within days of the news, an event began to take shape at San Francisco’s Golden State Park which saw everyone from Joe Satriani to Santana to Robin Williams, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson take to the stage. But arguably the most poignant moment came from San Francisco’s favourite sons, The Grateful dead and their friend, Neil Young.
‘Dancing in the Street’ – Martha and The Vandellas
Not many of the songs on our list transferred from the stage to the studio but the Dead were so enamoured with their cover of the classic Martha and The Vandellas song ‘Dancing in the Street’ that they ensured it had a prominent spot on Terrapin Station. It had previously featured on a live album from 1970 but this version of the song is far slicker.
It’s hard not to get swept up in the sheer swing and style of the song. There are a few hints at the Dead of old, a few swirling notes here and there, but otherwise, it is one of the few tracks on this list that tries to pay close attention to the Motown original.
It’s worth noting that this version of the song was out way before David Bowie and Mick Jagger got their hands on it.
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ – Bob Dylan
If you’re a big Grateful Dead fan, then we needn’t highlight the sheer admiration the band had for Bob Dylan. They not only provided the singer-songwriter with a new platform in the eighties but had spent much of the previous two decades covering his songs.
There are countless versions of some of Dylan’s more obscure songs that will undoubtedly please fans greatly. But, for our money, there’s no better than this searing rendition of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ taken from Vintage Dead in 1970.
Recorded in 1966 at one of the Dead’s early shows, it provides an honest reflection of two things: firstly, how huge Dylan had already become, even a few years after his breakthrough moment and, secondly, just how infatuated the band were with Dylan. They play this one pretty down the line and yet imbue it with the touch sensitivity that only true fans could do.
‘Hard to Handle’ – Otis Redding
Arguably one of the most underrated artists of his generation, Otis Redding died tragically young and left his career, one that many thought was destined to dwarf those around him, cut short. But, the Grateful Dead paid homage to the singer on History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice) from 1973 with this cover of ‘Hard to Handle’.
First released by Redding in 1968, the band are in full flow on this classic track. A song that relies on swagger and style is always bound to be swallowed up by the Dead and they approached this one licking their lips and open-mouthed. Pulsating and buzzing with verve, it’s a joy to listen to from start to finish.