5 Dead Blues Covers
Written By Patrick Ortiz
Music has so many positive affects on our lives. It is extremely powerful and has the ability to alter our moods and can even conjure up deep memories in the recesses of the mind. We listen when we are bored, when we are happy or sad, at parties, at weddings, at funerals; it really has no bounds, no matter what genre you gravitate toward. We are living in a time when music and its possibilities seem almost endless, and that is a beautiful thing.
Sometimes, music is not just about listening to the various tracks and albums of a band, but diving into an entire culture and even lifestyle. When a group captivates certain individuals, they become immersed in a band’s entire history and everything they encompass. I am sure you can think of a few bands right out the bat; the Beatles certainly fit this M.O. garnering all kinds of fans throughout various moments in their career. It may seem outlandish at times, following a band wherever they go and becoming obsessed with their every release or move. But, that demonstrates the power of good music.
One band that always comes to mind (my mind at least) when thinking about adoring fans is the Grateful Dead. You have undoubtedly seen their trademark skull or bear logos on backpacks tee shirts, cars, bathrooms, and at pretty much every music festival you can think of. The Grateful Dead are still idolized as massive music pioneers who paved a clear path for a slew of other musicians and even the creation of some subgenres.
The Grateful Dead came whirling on the scene in 1965 when the country was roughly one year into the hippie counterculture movement. Although they would eventually defy the bounds of genre specifications, the band began in the realm of psychedelic rock and blues music. The lead guitarist, vocalist, and principle songwriter Jerry Garcia who is underappreciated as a formidable guitar player, was heavily influenced by early blues players and brought this love to the rest of his bandmates.
Garcia and his band, which would stay pretty consistent throughout their 30-year existence, began experimenting on their Woodstock tour in 1969 and would expand upon various genres over multiple albums. Their first few albums exemplified the era they were playing in, with acid rock, blues, and psychedelic elements. Then, just as people began trying to classify their sound, the Dead released American Beauty which added the range of folk and country to their existing rock base.
This opened up a whole new set of possibilities for not only the Grateful Dead, but for all the other bands that did not want to be pigeonholed into one specific type of music. The Allman Brothers for example followed in similar suite but airing on the side of Southern Rock. The Dead as a result perfectly teed up the music field for jam bands to come about. The term jam band is rather popular now, but back in the 60’s and 70’s, when the Grateful Dead began experimenting with how long they could drag out a tune, there was no such term. Even in the 80’s with bands like Phish and Widespread Panic, the term wasn’t floating around. It wasn’t until the early 90’s when the term jam band really started being used to describe bands like the Dead and Phish. Now, the term is used to describe many bands of the day.
The main issue people have with these types of bands is that they go off on 20-minute tangents and float between too many styles to keep track of and it just ends up sounding like one big, unrehearsed song; which in some ways is half the appeal to those who like it. But, I would argue that within the epic sagas, there is a deliberate motive to every note these guys play. Every member in the Dead are trained in some way and played with each other for thirty years, so they became a cohesive unit. The Grateful Dead were able to expertly navigate a multitude of music stylings and boast an insane following of fans aptly named “Dead Heads” who not only followed the band religiously but completely immersed themselves in this music style.
Although the Grateful Dead wove in and out and pushed the envelop of music, they always seemed to keep an element of their sound that was there in the very beginning: the blues. Throughout several live shows and studio albums, Garcia and the band put their unique spin on traditional blues songs and they continued this for the bulk of their career. Let’s take a look at 5 blues tunes that the Grateful Dead played throughout their 30-year tenure.
Good Morning Little School Girl
This is a standard blues song that was first recorded in 1937 by the Chicago blues harpist Sonny Boy Williamson. Since the original, many musicians like Rod Stewart, Paul Butterfield, and Chuck Berry have released arrangements of the tune. The Grateful Dead released their version of the song on their debut self-titled album in 1967. This album, considering the future nature of the band, was pretty tame and stuck to more blues-rock elements throughout.
By 1970, Grateful Dead was ready for a change from their acid rock jams from the past few years and released Working Man’s Dead which was more of a folk country offering, showing their vast technical abilities. The album was mostly written by the collaborative efforts of Jerry Garcia and the talented poet and lyricist Robert Hunter. Although the album was mostly an Americana journey, “Easy Wind” still had the blues-rock vibe the band had been known for.
Big Boss Man
“Big Boss Man” was written by Luther Dixon who is known for writing a host of songs that were performed by the likes of the Beatles, Elvis, B.B. King and more. It was first heard in 1960 by the electric bluesman Jimmy Reed and was known as “one of the most influential Reed Grooves of all time.” The Grateful Dead introduced their rendition of this slow burning blues tune on their 1971 live album Skull and Roses at the Filmore East in New York. This is a pure 12-bar blues shuffle that features everything you want from a blues standard, a great guitar solo, iconic rhythm strumming, and harmonica jams! They included this tune on a few live sets through the years, and to further prove that the Dead never gave up the blues and instead embraced it. the video I have attached is of a live version from 1990, and they still got it!
Deep Elem Blues
The next traditional American blues classic we have is “Deep Elem Blues” This one goes way back, and the origins are uncertain. The Dead decided to cover this tune in 1981 and it was featured on their album Reckoning. At this point in their journey, the band had experimented with every musical genre you can think of and they are right back in the blues sweet spot. You cannot escape the blues!
West LA Fadeaway
By the 80’s, to say music had changed would be a massive understatement. The Grateful Dead still remained as a formidable rock band and garnered their usual following. Their 1987 studio album In The Dark is vastly different from all of the other albums we have mentioned so far. They incorporated synthesizers which was stylistic of the music from this decade, and other effects to their instruments and voices. When in Rome I guess. The tune “West LA Fadeaway” is a grooving rock tune that has slight bluesy elements sprinkled in and is just a fun jam.