Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Hell Week: Friend of the Devil

Grateful Dead: Friend of the Devil


Lyle Lovett: Friend of the Devil


Bob Dylan: Friend of the Devil (live '99)


Counting Crows: Friend of the Devil


Last Fair Deal: Friend of the Devil


Rice, Rice, Hillman, Pederson: Friend of the Devil


Most of the best-known Grateful Dead originals sprung from the collaborative songwriting of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, which dominated 1970 studio masterpiece American Beauty; this is one of my favorites, and -- judging from the number of great covers out there -- I'm not the only one. Something about the way the song manages to capture the trope and narrative structure of the best old appalachian blues songs from half a century earlier, I think. I wouldn't have posted so many, but I had a special request for this one, both the original and covers -- and I should point out that these are just a few of the many versions of this song I have, though many of the rest are mostly live recordings with dubious quality.

The slow, mournful Lyle Lovett is a particular favorite; so is Chris Smither's live version, which is posted elsewhere, lest the week's theme become overwhelmed by the amazing folkblues guitarist's wail. I don't usually like Counting Crows, but this song fits their fratrock anthem style pretty well, I think. The "new American roots" sound of Last Fair Deal and classic blue/newgrass from supergroup Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen at the end of the list are pretty sweet, too. And you can't knock the live Dylan, straight from the soundboard, ragged and torn, with full band behind him -- I got it from friend Ray when he did his own set of devilsongs, way back in December.

The lyrics of this song always struck me as kind of garbled, though the fragments of narrative we do get work well when you take them as the frantic ramblings of a haunted narrator on the run, his mind tumbling over the deadly sins (lust, greed), bad decisions and poorly managed urges that got him there in the first place. Near as I can tell, our particular devil here is a fickle friend with exquisite timing: he might loan you twenty in your time of need, but he's just as apt to track you down, pluck the twenty out of your desperate hands, and leave you stranded in a levee, laughing as the sheriff's hounds close in on your trail.

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