There is a wonderfully strange moment during the documentary Long Strange Trip where both The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead are at the same airport. From the looks of it, this is Let It Bleed-era Stones and Aoxomoxoa-era Dead, probably somewhere around 1969. There’s even a brief chat between Jerry Garcia and Mick Jagger, one of the stranger instances of worlds colliding.
It’s not actually all that bizarre once you think about it: the two bands shared a road manager in Sam Cutler, both were massively popular live draws, and both were a part of the countercultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s. The Dead might have been more experimental, but their roots were as a blues band just like the Stones, largely thanks to the influence of original frontman Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan. Even if they culturally occupied two different universes, there was quite a bit of crossover between covers, fans, and approaches to music when it came to the Stones and the Dead.
The Dead were reticent to high-profile covers throughout their career. The biggest artist they frequently took on was probably Bob Dylan, and the inclusion of well-known songs like ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘Dancing in the Streets’ showed the band at their most populist. But for the most part, the band loved obscure covers: ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ and ‘I Know You Rider’ were both traditional folk songs, while ‘Beat It on Down the Line’ and ‘Morning Dew’ were newer but lesser-known songs. For most fans, these songs would become inextricably linked to the Grateful Dead, even if they weren’t the original writers.
Side projects were where sing-along covers thrived. The Jerry Garcia Band took on everyone from Van Morrison to Bob Marley to The Beatles, while Bob Weir’s RatDog, Phil Lesh & Friends, and original offshoot New Riders of the Purple Sage were all cover-happy in their sets. All of these side projects took on Rolling Stones songs over the years, but comparatively few of those covers made it all the way to the Dead’s eclectic setlists.
The Dead and the Stones did share some covers: both took on the blues classic ‘Little Red Rooster’, and both had renditions of the aforementioned ‘Not Fade Away’. The two bands had Chuc Berry fanatics, so it only makes sense that both have done ‘Around and Around’ before. Both also took on Bobby Womack’s ‘It’s All Over Now’, but it seems likely that the Dead took inspiration directly from the Stones’ version of the song rather than the original.
When it came to songs written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that were covered by the Dead, the number gets whittled down to three. The first is ‘Empty Heart’, the somewhat obscure Stones song that the Dead played in 1966 during their formative years. The Dead were trying on just about any kind of musical style to see what fit at this time, and needless to say, ‘Empty Heart’ was quickly dropped from their live performances.
Starting in 1980, the Dead began to play ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ in concert. Their version was often slower and bluesier than the original, and the band seemed to like it enough to keep kicking it around. Although they only played ‘Satisfaction’ 30 times, those performances were stretched out over the course of 14 years, with the final playing of the song coming in 1994.
Finally, ‘The Last Time’ found a permanent place in the Grateful Dead’s setlist during the 1990s. Even though it’s universally seen as a Rolling Stones original, ‘The Last Time’ interpolates quite a bit of the traditional gospel song ‘This May Be the Last Time’. The song’s signature guitar riff is all Stones, however, and the Dead were clearly paying tribute to the Brits when they covered it 70 times over the course of four years in some of their final live treks.
Two additional songs seem to have just missed out on being a part of the Dead’s repertoire. Those were ‘I’m Free’, which was rehearsed during the Dead’s joint tour with Bob Dylan in 1987 but never made it to the stage, and ‘Start Me Up’, which the band played at a single soundcheck in 1995 but never actually wound up adding to their setlist.