One of the ways you can measure a great song is by how many times its been covered. That's not a perfect measurement of course because some songs are simply to complicated or long or to perfect to cover while lots of perfectly terrible songs get covered a lot. I don't know if Richard Thompson is being ironic or clever or serious when he covers Britney Spear's "Ooops I Did It Again" but I doubt you'll find too many people who will seriously argue that its a great song. Yet I can't help but think that when a song continually gets covered by a variety of people there's something about the song that transcends.
The Grateful Dead have been in my top five favorite band's list for the better part of two decades. One of the things I love about the Dead is how they simply defy genre classification. They mixed folk and the blues with jazz and straight ahead rock. A percursory look at the cover songs they played in concert gives you an idea of just how diverse they were. At any given show they might cover an old gospel number, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Martha and the Vandellas and Howlin' Wolf.
"Friend of the Devil" in its proper studio form is a fast paced bluegrass number though in concert the Dead often morphed it into a much blusier, somber number. Its one of the Dead's best songs (though don't ask me to actually compile that list for they have lots of great songs and I'd never be able to really rate them,) and has been covered by a large, diverse group of folks.
One of the things I want to do with this cover series is show how a single song can come out so differently when placed in different hands. So lets go on and hear what these artists can do with "Friend of the Devil"
Lyle Lovett - From the bootleg dated 1/27/92
Lovett first covered the song on the Grateful Dead tribute album Deadicated and then periodically played it live. In an interview he stated that he always thought the bluegrass version of the song never quite meshed with the forlorn nature of the lyrics. So he slowed it way down, and added a chilling, weeping cello to make it a proper ballad. This version does put the lyrics at the forefront which speak of the singer on the run from the law and making deals with the devil which don't quite turn out in his favor. It is a minimalist version that breaks my heart every time I hear it.
Tony Rice, Larry Rice, Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen - From the album Bluegrass Goes to Town
The origins of the Grateful Dead actually lie in a bluegrass band called Mother Mccree's Uptown Jug Champions which features Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. For the most part you don't really hear bluegrass in the Dead's sound, but with "Friend of the Devil" they let it all hang out. Here proper bluegrass players give the song a go to beautiful results. As is typical with bluegrass (and actually with the Grateful Dead themselves) theres a lovely instrumental break in the middle of the song with each instrument getting a nice work-out.The vocals are straight from the hills and the picking fast, furious and straight from God's own backyard.
The Counting Crows - From the album Films About Ghosts
I wouldn't have guessed the Crows were Deadheads but they do a really nice version with this song. They too slow it down a great bit and add in some nice vocal harmonies. This is probably the pretties version of the song I have with some nice organ work and some excellent musical explosions in the chorus.
Bob Dylan - From the bootleg Live Companion 1975, Vol. 2
I said I'd try to not have too many Dylan covers in this series, but I didn't say anything about not having Bob Dylan do some covers. This version is actually sung by Ramblin' Jack Elliott actually so it hardly even counts. Dylan's covered this song a whole bunch of times live which is a pretty good testament to how great the song actually is. This sounds like an audience recording which makes the sound less than stellar, but Elliot's vocals are strong and there's some nice acoustic guitar picking throughout.
Jerry Garcia and David Grisman - From the album Live on Letterman: Music From the Late Show
As I've been writing this series the question that continues to pop in my mind is this: what is exactly constitutes a cover song? It sounds like an easy question to answer: a song performed by someone who is not its writer. Except that things quickly get complicated. Take this song for example. It was written by Jerry Garcia, John Dawson and Robert Hunter but originally performed by the Grateful Dead. So if Jerry Garcia performs it without the Dead is it a cover or just the songwriter playing his song? What about Robert Hunter? He's been known to perform the song live, but he did not perform on the original version. Or how about Bob Weir - a member of the Grateful Dead, but not the writer of the song. If he performs it now is it a cover or not? There are lots of performers who sing songs they didn't write but who are generally considered the original artist. Go back to "All Along the Watchtower" a song now associated with Jimi Hendrix but which was of course written and originally performed by Bob Dylan. Dylan himself now performs the songs like the Hendrix version. Does that mean Dylan is covering his own song since the music is now belongs more to Hendrix than himself?
I the end I don't know if any of this really matters. Technically one probably wouldn't call this a cover version though it very different than the original and quite simply a stunning performance. Garcia's vocals are tender and weary while Grisman adds in some wonderful touches on the mandolin. It's the keyboards that get me though played by someone in Letterman's house band. It just sort of sneaks in, playing softly in the background at first but towards the end coming out to shine with this low moan that gives the song all sorts of mournful weight. It might not be a proper cover song, but its an absolute must-have.
I love the way a single song can be perfomred by so many different artist who all bring something new to the music and lyrics. "Friend of the Devil" is an excellent example of this with versions ranging from down and dirty rave-ups to sorrowful ballads - a true testament to the power of the song.