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Best Cover Band of All-Time?

Deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than you’ve ever gone before
by Nate LaPointe

Speaking of songs, the Grateful Dead were hands down the best cover band of all time. From Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard to Chuck Berry and Otis Redding, to Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan, the timeless nature of these songs has been cemented even further by being covered by the Grateful Dead. “Not Fade Away” IS a Grateful Dead song. “All Along the Watchtower” IS a Grateful Dead son

Due to the somewhat nerdy music approach to this column, I’m going to stay here for a while longer. All of us have talked to that guy who says, “Yeah, I saw the first time they played “St. Stephen” since such and such date.” As annoying as this guy can be, it tells us much about the culture of the Grateful Dead setlist. With no prior experience, I’m certain that a hardcore Journey fan does not talk about that, “sick version of “Don’t Stop Believing” from the Spectrum in ’82,” because they likely played the damn song the same damn way every damn time at every damn show. No offense to Journey fans out there, BUT the fantasy baseball aspect to the Dead’s setlists is appealing.

You’ve likely heard me reference Deadbase a time or two. If you don’t have one of these books, get one. It will likely keep you off social media for hours. One of my favorite things to do is look at trends, like I’ll look up a song in the “every time played” section and notice what song came before it, what song came after it, and how many shows lapsed between performances. Often, we notice trends. In fact, I’ve got full podcast episodes coming about some of these trends. Stay tuned. But for instance, I’m looking at “Sugar Magnolia.” We know this was normally an epic show closer and would occasionally open the New Year’s set after the countdown, but it was rarely a first-set opener. EXCEPT October 27, 1991 in Oakland. So I look at the song list and see they go into ‘Sugaree.” So now I HAVE to listen. Here’s the Sugar Mag intro through the first chorus and guitar solo…Go find it….

You hear it’s not quite the same rocking energy as it would had it been a show closer. The crowd is clearly happy, but not rocking.  You can FEEL the crowd settle into the swampy “Sugaree” groove and prepare for a full night of music, fully expecting to hear “Sunshine Daydream” later in the evening, which, spoiler alert, they DON’T play.

More music later. Next, the culture surrounding the five+ decades of the Grateful Dead is nearly as defining as the music, in my opinion. We all know a guy who HATES the Dead because he was a punk guy in LA in the ‘70s. Or someone who won’t wear Birkenstocks because their annoying Deadhead friend years ago used to wear them. Likely these associations are not music related at all and are more in reference to the culture. 

We talk about Birkenstocks and veggie burritos, miracle tickets and doses in the lot, tie-dyes and dreadlocks, but ultimately we are talking about community, acceptance, unique experiences, mindfulness, magic, synchronicity, and countless other terms that fit into this category of existing on this planet. We look for these defining moments in our lives and many of us find it in the culture of the Grateful Dead. And it’s not by accident. Jerry worked hard to make sure we had a safe space to be ourselves and have amazing experiences. He led by example. He was vulnerable in front of us and with us. He shared his most precious gift, his music. And he did it in sometimes quite scary moments. I’m reminded of an interview I saw once in which Jerry talks about a memorable night on acid. You can find it in Jerry On Jerry (but get the audio version, so you can hear Jerry tell it himself!).