Category: Grateful Dead

‘Tube Thursday: New Video Cover Projects
take on the Guy Clark, Grateful Dead, and Leonard Cohen songbooks

February 9th, 2012 — 08:24 pm

It’s not the newest trend in the webiverse. See, for example, Hangin’ Out On E Street, the Bruce Springsteen-solicited covers project we noted way back in February of 2009, or The Stand Ins project, which had Bon Iver, The New Pornographers, David Vandervelde, and other indie names taking on the tracks from Okkervil River album The Stand Ins as it was released in 2008.

But the songwriter-specific video covers project concept seems to be peaking, with several major collections in process as we speak. Today, we present our favorite submissions from three new multi-artist coverage sets, granting us new glimpses into the songbooks of Guy Clark, The Grateful Dead, and Leonard Cohen…plus a few bonus vids we’ve had kicking around from another project with a very different focus, indeed.

The modern trend towards the slow, track-by-track leak of impending albums as distributed blog-by-blog exclusives intersects with the video cover project conceit in Old Ideas With New Friends, designed to raise awareness of Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen’s newest album, among a broad set of younger listeners by connecting his older songbook to the new, predominantly indie inheritors of his dark narrative style. You gotta admire the conceit of coverage as album promotion – it worked for Peter Gabriel and Okkervil River, after all – and though the central genre connection here is broad alternative and hipster indie, not folk, after only five installments, the inevitable crossover has produced some fine versions, with more to come from Old 97s’ Rhett Miller and The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman, among others.

As a dubious bonus, of sorts, the project’s use of Vimeo’s precise sharing and embedding parameters show exactly how artists and labels can regain full control of the viral spread of media content without having to rely on broad-ranging, baby-with-the-bathwater law like SOPA or PIPA. Which is to say: you really must hear John Darnielle of The Mountain Goat’s sweet solo piano-driven cover of The Smokey Life, but you’ll have to head over to either Consequences of Sound or Vimeo to do it, as blog-embedding for the track is currently limited to that one major blog which managed to garner exclusive contract for first release. Luckily, after a similar short-lived period of exclusivity, the others in the project so far have now been made available to all of us. Here’s two that fit our mold.

Brandford Cox: Seems So Long Ago, Nancy (orig. Leonard Cohen)

Greg Dulli: Paper Thin Hotel (orig. Leonard Cohen)

As of the turn of the year, the official Grateful Dead page hosts The Dead Covers Project, a growing set of ‘tube-shared fan coverage – I’d use the term officially sanctioned, if it were not for the fact that, for a band which practically made its name through supporting the bootleg as a viable and supported mechanism of fan participation, the term seems fundamentally meaningless. The page will be featuring a new fan-made video every day in February, spreading the love…but in the end, like YouTube writ large, the project’s corporate underbelly hides a viable way to turn amateur status into gold: five of the videos will be “chosen” in March, and their artists’ profiles featured on the Dead’s online properties, and in the 2012 edition of the Grateful Dead Almanac, thus garnering VIP access to one of the largest music communities standing today.

Unlike other notables in today’s set, the Dead Covers project is truly amateur-oriented, with voting pushing fan favorites to the top of the home page; Dead fans being attuned to nuance in performance, the top of the list is quite good indeed, though the average Dead fan’s willingness to allow ragged recording quality after years of tape trading seems to favor interpretation over sound caliber. Still, a bit of digging after skimming the top of the list reveals hidden gems that linger, too. Here’s five favorites from the newest part of the vault.

Amal Bouhabib & Jeff Malinowski: Cassidy (orig. Grateful Dead)

Lauren Crow: Been All Around This World (orig. Grateful Dead)

JanelleVibes: Wharf Rat (orig. Grateful Dead)

Birdhouse: Here Comes Sunshine (orig. Grateful Dead)

Rob & Tom Wolfson: Deep Elem Blues (orig. Grateful Dead)

Townes Van Zandt contemporary and Red House Records recording artist Guy Clark’s been getting a heap of late-career recognition lately, thanks to This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, a two-disc set that finished January near the top of several major Country and Pop charts. But twelve-track companion piece Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya: The Sin City Sings the Songs of Guy Clark over at Country-slash-Americana blog Turnstyled, Junkpiled is equally delightful, and a bit closer to the Americana and folk lines, thanks to a dozen LA musical acts that came together to pay tribute to the man and his music on streetcorners, stages, and studios, and in their living rooms.

We posted The Far West’s slow, boozy contribution to the project last week, claiming that its classic Gram Parsons vibe made it perfect for the No Depression crowd; it still remains a favorite. But these solo takes from Wic Coleman and Jackson Tanner are equally great in their own way, with a bit more of the dusty troubadour vibe which made Clark so vibrant in concert, for those of us lucky enough to have seen him perform in bare-bones form. And the full collection bears further note: if you like your folk on the country line, and you’re willing to accept a few tracks with the drums-and-bass so typical of barroom country among the more delicate, raw works, take a gander at every video over at the project page.

Jackson Tanner: Queenie’s Song (orig. Guy Clark)

Wic Coleman: She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (orig. Guy Clark)

In other cover project news: it’s not new, and it’s not focused around a single artist; its videos are not solicited, but sought out, and then filmed in a consistently intimate black and white style that has us zooming in on artists in their home environs as each one speaks into the camera, contextualizing our experience, before picking up their instrument and amazing us with raw beauty. But the continued great works from The Voice Project – a non-profit that uses its ongoing coverage chains to raise awareness for displaced women in Uganda – just keep on coming, and if you’re not a subscriber to their email blasts, thus ensuring that you don’t miss a single new video, you should be. Check out two fave vids from the project below, and then head on over to The Voice Project to browse, subscribe, donate, and fall in love.

Cillie Barnes: Million Dollar Bill (orig. Dawes)

Ben Sollee: Real Life (orig. Joan As Police Woman)

Looking for more video and streaming coverage throughout the week, including previews and bonuses from the blog and beyond? Don’t forget to check out and “like” the Cover Lay Down Facebook page!

Comment » | Grateful Dead, Guy Clark, Leonard Cohen, YouTube

California Coverfolk, Vol. 5:
The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead, & more native sons and daughters

August 15th, 2010 — 01:01 am

There’s so many bands from California, it would be an exercise in futility to try to pay tribute to all of them in a single post. But with two major native singer-songwriters and the entire Punk genre out of the way, we’re left much closer to the mainstream, providing an opportunity to narrow our focus down. Here’s a few major sixties and seventies pop and rock acts that are or were forever associated with the state which gave them their birth.

Though Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass and old timey folk performances have found their way to these pages far more often than those of the band with which most people associate him, there’s no denying that the Grateful Dead epitomize the free love and drug-fueled trance rhythms of Haight Ashbury at its height. Having bussed through the neighborhood – now a sadly gentrified version of hippiedom – just days ago, it’s quite a relief to turn to some true-blue Deadsongs, all grassed up and exquisite as ever in the hands of these well-worn tributaries.

No California tribute series would be complete without the Beach Boys. Though their later work got weird and wild, to most of the world, their name still epitomizes a clean-cut era gone by: wooden-sided wagons, beach blanket harmonies, and what Wikipedia calls “a Southern California youth culture of cars, surfing, and romance” – kind of the antithesis of the sixties which would follow, once the hippies moved in and Skate Punk took over. [To hear what that sort of mash-up might sound like, might I recommend both the Lash version of Wouldn't It Be Nice and Melt Banana's violent take on Surfin' USA over at Cover Freak's recent Beach Boys cover post?]

Glenn Frey was born and raised in Detroit. Don Henley was from Texas. Jackson Browne was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and spent time in the Greenwich Village folk scene on his way to the top. But along with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Doobie Brothers, Linda Rondstadt, and other notable bands and musicians, the Eagles were central to the spread of the California country rock sound, particularly popular in the California music scene of the late 1960s, and their most famous hit Take It Easy – a co-write by Browne and Frey – would go on to define both the genre and the laissez-faire attitude it promoted.

Oddly, covers of Take It Easy are few and far between, though I can picture the song easily in my inner ear, stripped of its country twang, perhaps with a mandolin’s delicacy. And we posted the Gypsy King’s take on Hotel California last week as our journey began. But here’s a few more Eagles covers to keep you soaring.

Finally, The Mamas and the Papas – best known for their smash hit California Dreaming – aren’t that well covered, as it turns out; seems their self-proclaimed “leave folk behind” approach to songwriting doesn’t appeal to the acoustic set. And their cover of John Hartford’s California Earthquake is bombastic and far too funky for a folkblog. But I did find this fingerpickin’ solo instrumental delightful, the perfect lighthearted endcap to a long journey through the Golden State.

Cover Lay Down publishes new features and coverfolk sets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Looking for the rest of our California Coverfolk series? Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Coming up: We’ve moved on to Oregon, and so does the last installment of this summer’s Vacation Coverfolk!

1,125 comments » | California Coverfolk, Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, The Eagles

RIP, Erik Darling 1933-2008 (Arranger of folksong, member of The Weavers)

August 13th, 2008 — 10:47 pm

Guitarist, banjo player, and well-respected arranger of folksong Erik Darling, who passed away last week at the age of 74, tended towards the leeward side of fame: he was the guy who replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers, if that rings a bell among any of the oldguard folkies who remember a time before Dylan. He was also an Ayn Rand libertarian in the midst of a solidarity-minded social revolution, which caused friction in the midst of the pro-labor, liberal folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and probably contributed to the fact that you have no idea who he was.

But significantly, despite his political incompatibility with much of his audience, Darling had a gifted sense of how to reframe and update older, more traditional folksongs in ways which made them more atractive and fun for the predominantly young, white urban and suburban audiences that were discovering folk music in the fifties and sixties.

The impact of this on folk, writ large, cannot be underestimated.

Though Darling was well known within the folkworld for his virtuoso stringwork, which graced early recording sessions of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Jean Ritchie, and others before becoming part of the core sound of such early folk groups as the Folksay Trio, The Tarriers, The Weavers, and later, the Rooftop Singers, it is no accident that his peers and fans, in their obituary quotes and radioplay tributes, have primarily celebrated him for his talents as an arranger. Darling’s deliberate approach to building song structure and song performance to maximize a given song’s power was a revelation; the half century of folk groups and folksingers who followed in his footsteps owe him a huge debt of gratitude. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Darling’s short exposition on the Anatomy of an Arrangement is a tight treatise that should be required reading for all songwriters.

In tribute, then, to Darling and other group members and early folkies who have faded out of our consciousness, while their work lives on as part of the folk tradition: roots folksman Dave Alvin with a swinging barrelhouse take on Erik’s arrangement of old folksong Walk Right In, which was one of the early folkworld’s biggest hits, and the beginning of the twelve-string craze; The Tarriers with their “original” version of what would become one of Harry Belafonte’s longest-lasting chart-toppers, though the song, which was actually created by fusing two Jamaican folksongs, was a #4 hit for the Tarriers themselves; and the Grateful Dead with a very ragged but more traditional take on old Kingston Trio standard Tom Dooley, which turns out to have been based on Darling’s arrangement from his early days with the Folksay Trio.

Bonus points: actor Alan Arkin was a member of the Tarriers, too. Yeah, that Alan Arkin. Really.

1,022 comments » | Dave Alvin, Erik Darling, Grateful Dead, The Tarriers

Covered In Folk: (Not) The Grateful Dead (on Borrowed Tradsongs and the Dead as a Vehicle of Renewal)

June 6th, 2008 — 10:01 am

Naturalismo, which I discovered when researching last week’s post on Freak Folk, seems to be one of very few music bloggers to note the passing of Alton Kelley — the sixties poster artist whose most popular work was probably the above skeleton-with-rose-garland poster, originally created for a 1966 Grateful Dead show at the Avalon Ballroom. You may not have seen the poster before, but you’ve seen the graphic it inspired on a hundred Volkswagen bumpers; the image, which Kelley and his long-time partner Stanley Mouse adapted from a nineteenth century illustration for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was the source from which the Grateful Dead took their early, longstanding, most recognizable iconography.

The relative dearth of recognition in the blogworld at Kelley’s passing, coupled with the evolutionary story of the iconography of the skeleton in that poster, got me thinking about the similarly under-covered relationship between the Dead themselves and the folk tradition. I’m particularly interested in the way the Dead, like Kelley and Mouse’s skeleton itself, served as a bridge between the images and objects of the past and the ongoing recognition of those objects in the present. If the skeleton reframed the imagery, the Dead reframed the tradition. And that’s pretty folk, right there, folks.

I’m not claiming that the Grateful Dead are folk music, necessarily, though their credibility in the folkworld is pretty strong. The combination of their use of traditional appalachian folksong as source material and their pre-history as jug band artists align them closely with the bluegrass that preceded them, and the newgrass movements which would follow. And their tendency towards acoustic sideprojects, their use of acoustic instrumentation and folk instruments, their connection with the same hippie movement which brought forth and nurtured the second wave of the new folk revival post-Guthrie and Dylan, and their not-so-occasional stripped down performance makes a strong case for their inclusion in the folk canon.

Jerry Garcia’s solo work and influence, especially, are a major component of this; by most accounts, though others in the band co-wrote their share of originals, it was Garcia who learned the majority of these traditional ballads and jams, on train rides and on back porch sessions, and brought them in for the band to arrange. And while his bandmates went on to play music across the genre map, both on hiatus and in the more recent aftermath of his death — it’s hard to argue that the solo output of, say, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, or Bruce Hornsby count as folk in any shape or form — it was Garcia who would become almost as well know for his more delicate acoustic mandolin and guitar work with compatriots such as David Grisman.

One day, it is my intention to give that Garcia and Grisman folkwork the full attention it deserves. And previously, I’ve posted several sets of songs more properly characterized as bluegrass which follow the Grateful Dead take on tradition: two wonderful newgrass takes on Deep Elem Blues; a Single Song Sunday collection of covers of Rain and Snow; a great high-energy version of Grateful Dead “standard” Don’t Ease Me In. But it’s never to late to do more, especially in tribute. Today, a few traditional songs played by others from the less countrified side of the folkworld, post-popularization by the Grateful Dead, and in most cases, surely influenced by same.

I considered adding a few more traditional songs of and from the Grateful Dead playbook here as a bonus, but it’s Friday, and we only do short posts here at Cover Lay Down on “off” days. Luckily, several recent and especially relevant posts on other (better) blogs are still live and worth the visit. So quick, before they’re gone:

PS: Much credit goes to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder as a general resource for today’s post. As the plethora of links here and elsewhere remind us, the folkworld would be a much poorer place were it not for the obsessive pursuits of others.

479 comments » | Abigail Washburn, Bill Morrissey, Bill Staines, Elizabeth Mitchell, Grateful Dead, Greg Brown, Zak Smith

Mothers of the Folkworld: Suzanne Vega, Ani DiFranco, Lori McKenna, Kris Delmhorst

May 10th, 2008 — 09:16 pm

Katrina, Narissa, and Amelia Nields, Clearwater Folk Festival, 2005

As a volunteer for performer check-in at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival for several years, I had the rare privilege of meeting the children of several notable folk musicians, from Lucy Kaplansky’s adopted daughter to Katrina Nields’ newborn. Seeing my favorite musicians up close and personal was always a treat. But seeing folk musicians in parenting mode always felt like peering behind the curtain of the public persona to something real. And once you see that part of a musician, it flavors the way you hear their songs from that day forward.

The confessional, personal nature of folk music lends itself well to songs of family and parenthood; as I’ve written about previously, I have a special fondness for music which speaks to that side of life. But it’s got to be especially difficult to be a mother who makes her living out of music. Working mothers have it hard no matter what, but musicianship isn’t like other careers: the late-night shows, the marathon recording sessions, the constant need for one more focused, childless hour crafting song, all stand in tension with the closeness and availability good parenting demands of us.

Yet the folkworld is full of female musicians who — with or without the help of sensitive, often stay-at-home dads — work their touring schedules around the various and sundry blessings of childrearing, from nursing and naps to school plays and graduations. Previously featured folkmothers include Caroline Herring, Lucy Kaplansky, Rani Arbo, Shawn Colvin, and Cindy Kallet: some of my favorites, and a significant percentage of the women who we’ve featured here on Cover Lay Down.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to sing a song to your child in front of ten thousand people, or, like Dar Williams did at Falcon Ridge last year, to bring them up on stage, so they can see what you see. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to give birth, or to head out on tour for a week without your child.

But I trust that the blogworld is surely swimming with songs about mothers this weekend. And in the midst of all that, I thought it was important to remind us all that the reason we’re here, on Mother’s Day and every day, is because a few daring, real people — people with families, with hopes and fears, with love enough to share — have chosen to make their living making the music that fills our world. And, notably, this is a career path where neither family health insurance nor maternity leave policies are the norm.

Today, as a tribute to working moms everywhere, we bring you some coversongs of and from a few more singer-songwriters with children of their own. As always, if you like what you hear, please support these artists and their families by purchasing their albums, heading out to their shows, and treating them as real people whenever possible.

Lori McKenna was already a mother of three when she stepped in front of her first open mic audience at the age of 27; since then, she has spent most of her career playing part-time in the local New England folk circuit, staying close to home while slowly making a name for herself with a growing set of well-crafted songs that celebrate the simple pleasures of life as a struggling middle class homemaker.

Though McKenna recently turned country, resetting her down-to-earth lyrics to a newly countrified sound and touring as an opening act for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, her long tenure in the folkworld and her constant celebration of a vividly real motherhood earns her the lead-off spot on today’s list. We featured McKenna sideman Mark Erelli’s cover of McKenna’s Lonestar earlier this week; here’s a gritty lo-fi take on Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees from The Kitchen Tapes, and a much more polished but no less authentic look back at Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes from out of print American Laundromat compilation High School Reunion.

For a while there, Suzanne Vega was on the fast track to become the most prolific and popular folk musician to come out of the second-wave Greenwich Village folk scene in the early eighties; she is probably best known for Luka, her late 80s hit about a neighbor’s abused child. But if you haven’t heard much from her in a decade or so, it’s because she decided to curtail her touring and recording significantly in 1994 in order to focus on her family after her daughter Ruby was born. Since then, she has produced only three albums of new material; the songs have gotten even more introspective, but her quality hasn’t suffered one bit.

Here’s Vega’s take on two delicate songs about children from Grateful Dead tribute album Deadicated, plus some great duet work with John Cale on an old Leonard Cohen standard.

Urban folk feminist Ani DiFranco is a relatively new mother and ferocious touring machine who has taken a non-traditional path to motherhood even for the musicworld; instead of taking a hiatus to focus on recording and parenting, as so many other musicians have done, Ani brings her daughter with her as she tours. The model seems to be working — Ani and family just made the cover of the most recent issue of Mothering magazine — but other than this concert video of new song Present/Infant from her new DVD Live at Babeville, Ani has not yet recorded any of the new songs about motherhood which she has performed at her recent shows. So here’s a few random covers of Ani DiFranco songs, including a great version of Joyful Girl, a song DiFranco wrote to honor her own mother, performed by jam band Soulive with Dave Matthews.

A swollen belly and a June due date make Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter and folk producer Kris Delmhorst an impending member of the folk musician mother club, but motherhood is already starting to affect her career; she was showing when I saw her at the Iron Horse a few months ago, and these days, she’s rushing through a few dates in support of her new and absolutely stunning album Shotgun Singer before she goes on family leave. We’ve played cuts from Delmhorst here before, in recognition of her work with Peter Mulvey and father-to-be Jeffrey Foucault as part of folk trio Redbird; today, it’s Kris’ turn to glow with this fine, twangy interpretation of an old spiritual tune, and a sweet collaborative turn on Tom Waits’ Hold On.

Thanks to for their feature on Folk Music Moms, which served as today’s writing prompt. For more about volunteering at Falcon Ridge this July, check out the festival website. Oh, and if you’re reading this, Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

1,009 comments » | Alana Davis, Allison Crowe, ani difranco, Dave Matthews, Grateful Dead, Kris Delmhorst, Leonard Cohen, Lori McKenna, Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, Soulive, Suzanne Vega, Tom Waits

Single Song Sunday: Rain and Snow (On Traditional Folksongs as Tabula Rosa) Plus 3 bonus Grateful Dead rainsongs

December 16th, 2007 — 03:01 am

Whether stripped-down so as not to overwhelm the authenticity of the song and singer, or jazzed up to resonate with modern musical sensibilities, it is the passage of familiar song, motif, and situation between audience and performer which makes the “folk” in folk music. Songs about trains are ultimately songs about longing; songs about the road resonate with those who wander and those who long for a change, though in different ways. Such songs play broadly to universal themes, the better to leave room for such connection. In collapsing the participant/observer gap, the songs have connected folk artists and folk audiences for a century or more.

We might say, then, that traditional songs like Rain and Snow (also called Cold Rain and Snow in some collections) are both heart and origin of folk music. Problematically, however, these same qualities which make tradfolk accessible can make writing about traditional songs an exercise in futility.

Many tradfolk songs have loose lyrics, thin and incomplete, which drift from interpretation to interpretation, and thus invite the sort of minute lyrical analysis only a music historian could love. Today’s featured song is perhaps an extreme example of the problem of interpretation. It contains only twelve lines, four of which are merely repetitions of the previous line, and its lyrics are vague, naming lifelong trouble between narrator and spouse without ascribing cause.

Similarly, since the origins of traditional american folk songs like Rain and Snow are murky at best, historical analysis is no better an approach to understanding. Even the best write-ups can end up an exercise in cover geneology, offering little more than a litany of who-sang-and-when, ad infinitum. And this is the anathema of blogging, I suppose, which seems to me most specifically a medium of anecdotal small-scale sharing and interpretation, not mere enumeration.

But this is not to say that there is nothing we can say. The best approach to traditional song interpretation, I think, begins with a simple acknowledgement of what a song is. It is the parameters of possibility which make traditional folk song unique and interesting.

Rain and Snow, for example, is a beautiful, simple, melancholy song of spousal dissatisfaction which can be interpreted as many ways as humans can express such emotion. The way the doubled-lyrics degrade from storylyric to simple image to repeated, strung-out phrase at each verse’s end requires singers to howl their emotional choices open-voweled. The song’s last line leaves open the possibility that the song’s narrator has been the cause of his own resolution, without necessarily calling it either way.

When combined, these traits make for powerful potential in the hands of the coverartist. The unresolved narrative, coupled with the simple lyrical and chord patterns, leaves ample room for true interpretation. Indeed, it is the tonality and approach of a given coverartist which will ultimately determine whether we take these lyrics as melancholy or resigned, the narrative as sinister or merely regretful.

Rain and Snow is generally considered a traditional fiddle-and-folk appalachian folksong, though old folkies likely know it best from the works of Pentagle and the Grateful Dead; it is so much a part of the Deadhead canon, in fact, that it was included on jazz/folk/world music label Shanachie‘s “The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead”. Rather than rehash those old familiars, here’s a set of six stellar post-millenial versions, from folk to roots to celtic to true blue bluegrass, just to prove that there’s always more life to be had in tradsongs, the lifeblood of folk.

As always, wherever possible, artist and album links on Cover Lay Down go directly to each artist’s preferred sources for purchase — the best way to support musicians without giving money to unecessary middlemen. Order now, and put some tradition under the tree.

Today’s bonus rainsongs have all been performed by members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another, according to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Songfinder:

  • New Riders of the Purple Sage founder Dave Nelson covers the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain (live)
  • Folk supergroup Redbird do a jangly version of Dylan’s Buckets of Rain
  • Neo-folkgrassers Crooked Still cover softly tradsong Wind and Rain

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Folk covers of songs of snow and winter

192 comments » | Be Good Tanyas, Blue Mountain, Crooked Still, Dave Nelson, Del McCoury, Grateful Dead, Peter Mulvey, Redbird, Single Song Sunday, solas, The Chieftains

Chris Smither Covers: John Hiatt, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Chuck Berry, and Dylan

October 28th, 2007 — 10:32 am

I seriously considered Chris Smither for our Covered in Folk series. After all, for much of his forty-year career Smither was a total unknown outside a very small community…unless you happened to know who wrote Bonnie Raitt’s hit Love Me Like A Man. Smither has cred as a performer in his own right; he deserves to be touted for his own deceptively simple musicianship, not just his writing. The problem is, while his songs have been pretty consistently out in the open since he started out, his career path yaws like a ship in a storm.

Smither joined the Cambridge, MA folk scene in the late sixties, and hit the national radar in the early seventies with a spate of albums that showcased his emerging songwriting and raw, bluesy swamp folk style. But he faded into relative obscurity by the end of the decade, touring sporadically, releasing only one album in the eighties while his songs lived on in the hands of others. For a while, it looked like another promising musician had gotten lost.

But when Smither came back in 1991 with intimately recorded live album Another Way To Find You, it put him right back in the groove, winning awards and filling bars across the country. Since then, he’s been prolific and celebrated; today, where the Dixie Chicks still sell more Patty Griffin than Patty Griffin, Chris Smither has transcended life as “the guy who wrote that song” to become a headliner again, reemerging from the dark eighties to impress a new generation with his foot-stomping blues/folk guitar style, his throat-scratching Florida by way of New Orleans tenor drawl, and his interpretation of both his own well-crafted tunes and familiar standards from the folk canon.

At his best, Smither’s signature sound is a holdover from the days of Leadbelly, before blues and folk music split into distinct genres. Like those that came before him, he can play fast and loose with tempo, speeding through phrases on the guitar in raw emotive power. What distinguishes his style from the great grandaddies of interpretive fingerplucking is a preference for fastfinger slide over chord-playing, and a mellow, weathered grin all his own that shines through his lyrical play to flavor even the most wistful of folksongs.

The edgy, bluesy style Smither favors in performance is best featured on Another Way to Find You, in all its live, foot-stomping glory; his produced work shows an equally gifted ability to play the power of that wailing voice and sweet guitarplay off a full wash of sound. Here’s a full house of covers from his second wave of fame — a trio of solid tracks from Another Way, and a pair of more recent, more produced cuts — just to prove that you can rise again:

  • Friend of the Devil (orig. Grateful Dead)
  • Down in the Flood (orig. Bob Dylan)
  • Tulane (orig. Chuck Berry)
  • Rock and Roll Doctor (orig. Little Feat)
  • Real Fine Love (orig. John Hiatt)

Chris Smither sells all his in-print works, from 1984′s amazing It Ain’t Easy to last year’s solid Leave The Light On, through his website, so you know where he’d prefer you buy them. Unfortunately, if you’d like to go back to his work from before the resurrection, you’ll have to scour the used recordshops — but they’re well worth the vintage price, if you find one in good condition.

Today’s bonus coversongs are a full house, too:

  • Smoothjazz chanteuse Diana Krall covers Smither’s Love Me Like A Man
  • Bonnie Raitt covers Love Me Like A Man, too (live, from Road Tested)
  • Chris Smither’s original 1970 version of Love You Like A Man
    (our first NON-cover here on Cover Lay Down!)
  • Smither makes Roly Sally’s Killin’ the Blues his own
  • Shawn Colvin covers Smither’s version of Killing the Blues

1,106 comments » | Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Smither, Chuck Berry, Diana Krall, Grateful Dead, John Hiatt, Little Feat, originals, Shawn Colvin