Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s a favorite live cover song?
At a 2011 concert in Toronto, Paul Simon heard a fan say that she’d learned how to play guitar to his song “Duncan.” He prompted her to come up onstage and play it. “I never thought that she’d be able to actually do it,” he admitted later. “She was literally shaking. But then, she kind of tore into it and the band picked it up.”
That’s how Rayna Ford came to be performing “Duncan” for 3,000 or so people, all the while radiating disbelief, nerves, and sheer joy. With Paul looking on like a proud grandfather, she comes through with a fine performance, not flubbing any lyrics, but the performance is almost beside the point here – at the five-minute mark of this video, when she sings “Here comes something and it feels so good!“, you know exactly what she’s talking about, and when she follows that with a triumphant scream, it’s impossible not to feel her elation.
A few other members of the audience put up videos of the performance on YouTube; this video’s the clearest, but the one taken by her husband Rod might be even better, as he hollers out chord changes and support. Of all the people at the Sound Academy that night who fell in love with Rayna Ford, he had been the first. She later revealed in an interview how they met: “I was out at a bar and the wonderful man who would one day become my husband was playing ‘Duncan’ on stage with his band. That night, I fell in love with that song and the man on stage who was singing it… I was so inspired that I bought my first guitar soon after and gradually learned to play ‘Duncan.’ I truly wanted to sing that song so I could make others feel as wonderful as I felt when I heard it that night.”
That she did. That she did.
Oasis is one of the great bands of rock ‘n’ roll, yet their signature tune “Wonderwall” brings me great melancholy and infinite sadness. The song itself is not bad, but the idea of “Wonderwall” makes me want to pull a Bluto Blutarsky. Or go listen to Blur. Everyone and their grandma has heard it and it’s easy to learn on guitar, so since 1995 nearly 20 million frat bros and mediocre guitarists have played “Wonderwall” in your dorm room or friend’s party where of course everyone sings along (because it’s an easy song to drunkenly sing along with, and isn’t that the key to a hit song?).
It’s no longer a song but a meme.
This creates a dilemma. On the one hand, I want to talk about how great Oasis is every chance I get, yet each conversation somehow returns to THAT song and never about the dozen other great songs Oasis wrote. Yes, Oasis only made two good albums (some would say three), but they still wrote many great songs after 1995 (uh, have you heard “Songbird”?).
But no, the story is always “Wonderwall,” and if it wasn’t for Jay Z and Glastonbury I would still hate this song.
Let me explain:
In 2008, Jay Z became the first hip-hop act to headline Glastonbury, a festival known as a safe haven of NME-approved guitar bands (the other two headliners that year were Kings Of Leon and The Verve). It was exciting news and a hopeful step in the right direction for growing acceptance of hip-hop and rap among mainstream rock and alternative fans.
However, many people weren’t happy with the news, including Oasis songwriter and overall swell guy Noel Gallagher, who had this to say about a hip-hop artist headlining Glastonbury: “It’s wrong.”
So how does Jay Z respond?
Well, other than giving this thoughtful interview, Jay opened his already historic set with a cover of Noel’s most popular song. Yep, he played THAT song.
But it wasn’t a straight cover. Jay walked on stage with an electric guitar and started “playing” it with his back up band, which was actually playing, while he “sang” over a Liam Gallagher vocal track. The stunned UK-heavy crowd could only respond in the same way anytime an Oasis song starts. Everyone started screaming along. And then the music stops, Jay pauses, and then he goes straight into “99 Problems.”
It was a brief moment in time that meant the world to me when I first watched the clip online, and it still brings me joy to this day. We all love live covers for different reasons, whether it be its sound or the story behind the chosen song. For me, this cover was a statement in the face of a popular festival’s lack of diversity and a statement: hip-hop is here. I can get over how this “cover” is only one verse and chorus and how tongue-in-cheek it is, but I still love watching this clip and seeing one of the great rappers of my time make a huge statement on one of the world’s biggest stages.
In just two minutes, Jay Z saved “Wonderwall” from itself.
There’s no question that his set led the way for Beyoncé and Kanye West to eventually headline the festival, and I’d like to think that it has converted hip-hop haters into at least hip-hop hey-this-ain’t-so-bad(ers).
And oh yeah, “Wonderwall” isn’t that bad of a song.
Everyone covers “The Weight.” A number of versions have been written about on this site, and it is one of those songs that makes a regular appearance at Americana music “all-star” jams and in the set lists of bar bands — usually as a finale, since it traditionally allows a number of singers to take the lead on a verse. The Band’s original, with its somewhat obscure, vaguely religious lyrics and its message of community, is pretty amazing, and yet there is an argument that the Staples Singers’ cover (reportedly the first cover done after its initial release), which filters the song through their gospel roots, is even better.
The Last Waltz is a great film, even if in retrospect it has been criticized as a triumph of Robbie Robertson’s ego over the true collective nature of The Band, particularly by Levon Helm. According to Helm, when the live show was done, it was felt to be “too lily-white and missing something crucial.” So, being fans of their cover, the Band called in the Staple Singers to join them in a performance of “The Weight.” The version they recorded starts off like the Band, but when Mavis Staples takes the lead, followed by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the song hits another level. It takes nothing away from the great vocalists in The Band to say that the ending of the Last Waltz version, with Mavis, Pops, Cleotha and Yvonne Staples providing their church harmonies, is spiritual. Mavis has remembered it as an important experience.
Mavis Staples is now almost 77 years old and still tours constantly. She has a new album out, produced by M. Ward, after having her last two produced by Jeff Tweedy. Her shows are uplifting, and if her voice isn’t quite the instrument it was when she was in her prime, and if her knee replacements hinder her movement a bit, her spirit and love for entertaining are undiminished. A documentary, Mavis!, focusing mostly on her 75th year, but still providing a good deal of background on Mavis and her remarkable musical family, premiered on HBO on leap day, and I had the chance to see a screening of it a week or so earlier. She even visits with Levon Helm during the film, not long before he died, and the mutual love and respect between these two greats is palpable.
I’ve seen Mavis a few times recently, and while the highlight of the shows is usually “I’ll Take You There,” her version of “The Weight” is not far behind. This video, shot at the Clearwater Great Hudson Revival in 2013, the second time I saw Mavis, gives you an example of the power of this cover live. Mavis graciously allows members of her tight band to take the lead on a few verses (sister Yvonne, however, takes a pass). Yet, as always, it is clear when Mavis sings that most of the load, appropriately, is right on her.
It’s kind of hard to explain why this hits so many spots and so hard. And yet so easy, so obvious. Easy if you swallow the hype, best rock and roll band, yeah yeah, in the world cover the best songwriter since, I don’t know, what do they say, Keats, as if we remember any of his. Songs, that is. But, hang on, don’t tell me “Like a Rolling Stone,” the original, the Dylan, isn’t the single most uplifting song ever. No? Well, you’re wrong. It is, this is a fact, something even I failed to realize that until my son took my phone and made it my ringtone. He knew his dad and he knew the song. True, the Stones were already ancient in 1995, but for me, this confirmed all the incandescent hyperbole. I had been too young for their 60s prime. Yes, I knew all the songs, but they were a singles band, weren’t they? Us dudes, teenaged a decade later, were into albums (maaan), we didn’t want that old hat, and yet, by their hitting the road hard from the mid-70s, suddenly we too were convinced. That trio of records, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, and Exile gave them credibility, and as we became old enough to get to their live shows, suddenly they were touring yearly, with albums falling out on top of each other. For me the period between Some Girls (1978) and Bridges to Babylon (1997) was golden, a sometimes unpopular view, but I think I saw them live maybe 6 or 8 times during those years, the experience of each show getting better and better. Stripped, the record from which this live song comes, and I believe it was genuinely live too, included this take from a show at Brixton Academy that I would have sold my eyes to have got to. Do they transform the song? No? Is it better than Bob? No. To be fair, all they do is replicate it and its integral keyboard signature, almost as karaoke, but they can. And it just makes me grin. It makes me punch the air and embarrass the neighbors. Hey, it’s named after them, after all, isn’t it? Even if Dylan didn’t know that at the time. Thanks, Bob, indeed!
Taking on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown at the 2007 Grammys musical tribute to the recently passed music deity seems a bit daunting, to say the least. Christina Aguilera’s fearless performance suggests that she wasn’t even the least bit intimidated. Never mind the fact that she’s performing live in front of an audience filled with her influences and contemporaries, as well as an audience of millions at home. Never mind the fact that, as a woman, she’s covering a song that Rolling Stone characterized as “biblically chauvinistic.” Most importantly, never mind the fact that she knows that the vast majority of those watching have an inner dialogue of, “Who does she think she is covering the Godfather of Soul?! Wasn’t she in the Mickey Mouse Club?”
Aguilera embraced all of the external distractions and noise and delivered the performance of her life.
Rising from the stage floor, the confident lioness, stunningly dressed in a white jumpsuit (reminiscent of Brown’s legendary concert wear), struts to the microphone and lets out a roar that leaves the audience of millions able to do nothing but stand with their mouths agape. As her relentless attack of this 1966 classic continues, she gets the chance to show off her ridiculous vocal range, commanding stage presence, and evident undying admiration for Mr. Dynamite.
The possessed Aguilera eventually succumbs to the overwhelming power she created by crumbling to the stage floor, while still performing her exhausting and inspiring cover, with heart-stopping, pitch-perfect screams. When the performance concludes, the cameras turn to the audience, who are all partaking in a rousing standing ovation. The obviously impressed 2007 Grammy darling for Ray, Jaime Foxx, keeps control of his applause, careful not to tarnish his shining star, understating, “That was pretty good. Pretty good.” Knowing damn well that Christina stole the night.
There are many factors that make Christina Aguilera’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” a favorite live cover song of mine. There’s the fact that it’s a stunning and fitting homage to James Brown, one of the most exciting, gifted, and influential minds in music history. There’s the magnitude of the moment and how Christina just owned it. Finally, there’s my personal favorite, the “Never judge a book by its cover” factor. Christina’s performance puts you in a headlock and proves that even though “This is a man’s, a man’s, a man’s world… it wouldn’t be nothing, NOTHING / Without a woman or a girl.”
A few years ago, I saw Sarah Jarosz at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. I’d been a fan since she arrived as a teenage bluegrass prodigy in 2009 with her first album, Song Up in Her Head. My young son was also crazy about her, so when he wanted to see her in concert, it didn’t take me very long to agree. We had a great time. Sarah engages in a lot of back-and-forth with the crowd, keeping things playful and relaxed. It made the small venue seems more like a living room than a theater. She and her band took a short break halfway through the show, and when she returned with her cellist, Nathaniel Smith, the shift in tone was like a punch to the stomach.
The playful banter was gone. The crowd was no longer boisterous. Instead, we were spellbound by the melody plucked out on the cello strings. Nathaniel played for quite a while before Jarosz started to sing the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” Somehow listening to them perform was like being inside of a black-and-white picture, captured in the evening and morning after in the lyrics. The mood was so tangible you could reach out and feel the longing, hurt, and nostalgia. It was a masterful performance.
I couldn’t find a good video of that particular performance, but there is another great one, shot at the Troubadour. It’s not the night that moved me a few years ago, but it’ll give you a darn good idea of how I felt.
I am a sucker for spectacle. If it’s big and sparkly and shiny, I wants in.
If I had lived in Ancient Rome, I would have had season tickets to the Coliseum (Go Glads!), and as much as I disagree with pretty much everything Gene Simmons says, I am in utter awe of KISS and have found myself subconsciously blurting out, “They’re the greatest rock band in the world.” They’re not. They’re so not. I don’t actually believe this… but then, I get suckered in by the pyros and those hot guitars.
This love of epic grandeur is how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gets me. I’ve got my issues with them but those are erased with their incredible induction ceremony performances. The greatest of which was when George Harrison was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
Known as the quiet Beatle, Harrison was inducted in 2004 by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne – his brothers-in-arms from ’80s supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys. Petty speaks a lion’s share of the induction and memorializes his friend by saying, “Years before Live Aid, George invited the idea of rock and roll giving back to the people.”
That is what this tribute does. It gives back to everyone who loves music and misses Harrison.
Harrison’s son Dhani strums his acoustic guitar while Tom Petty croons the opening lyrics. Jeff Lynne takes care of the higher notes while Steve Winwood throws down on the ivories. The focus of this performance is on these four musicians until Prince decides to pay tribute.
Donning a red fedora and playing the guitar as if it’s an extension of his own body, Prince makes this wood and nickel limb sob, scream and howl. At one point, bending the strings and his own body so far back, he almost tumbles off the stage. This is no gently weeping guitar but an anguished wailing mourner lamenting the loss of a great friend.
And just like that, it’s over. A final volley of drums and squeal of guitars, and thus endeth our eulogy.
Or, in the words of Prince himself, “Thank U for a funky time. Call me up whenever you wanna grind.”
I honestly don’t know if Pearl Jam saved my life or not. All I know is that I barely made it through the two years during which I listened to nothing but Ten, Vs., and a few bootlegs with silly titles, one of which compiled audio from all of their televised performances including two stints at SNL, the MTV music awards, and this 1992 premier party for the Cameron Crowe movie Singles. As bad as those years were, and as exclusively as I listened to Pearl Jam, it’s hard not to attribute some part of my survival to a band fairly easily dismissed by detractors as an entity embarrassingly locked into the early nineties, like Crystal Pepsi or the television show Dinosaurs.
This performance is, for me anyway, intimately tied to a period in which I loved the band more vigorously and completely than I have loved just about anything. My love was familiar and familial; I knew them, the way Jeff jumped about, the way Stone carried on to distract us from the fact that Mike was the genuine talent, the way Eddie was constantly trapped between a desire to wake up in complete obscurity and a pathological inability to phone in even a single performance. I’m not going to pretend that the love isn’t still in my ribcage exactly where I left it whenever, every few years or so, I binge on old performances or see a show. Still, this broadcast, viewed in a shared TV room of my college dormitory, was likely the apex.
I should be clear that I can admit that the boys are not wearing fame well here. They are obviously altered to the point of mere coherence. The performance is more wild energy and gnashing teeth than focus or even showmanship: at one point, Eddie tells the crowd to “sing with me” and it’s clear they don’t know the song because it’s a cover of a band no one was listening to in 1992.
Watching it now, tonight, it occurs to me that this was the moment I realized Eddie was a decade older than me. Tied into that realization was a bunch of other ones: I was likely going to make it after all, I would probably go on to something like a marriage and maybe even a divorce, and I would only really get better at living if I risked forgetting every note in the guitar solos of the three versions of Alive I had in regular rotation. In other words, this performance marked the end of my struggles with adolescent depression and the beginning of my less spectacular struggles with adulthood. The epiphany was a slow one, probably more like making the same mistake a million times than a traditional epiphany; even as I felt something new and not altogether welcomed while Eddie, near thirty, sung about a teenaged wasteland, it took me less than week to find a recording of the song and commit it to memory.
Come to think of it, this performance might mark the beginning of my conscious love of covers. It is my love of covers that has had me defending Pearl Jam as they’ve essentially become largest cult band in the world, still filling arenas as soon as they announce a tour while more or less existing completely outside the notice of anyone who couldn’t write some version of my first sentence: their typical tour includes more covers than the total number of songs U2 takes on the road. Sure, as this band has aged, it’s become clear they can’t really write catchy songs. What they do – and what they’ve always done – is love music in a way that is close to how I love music. Eddie’s silly expectation that everyone would know the song is optimism. He wants to believe that everyone knows it because they should. Because it quite possibly saved his life.
In this clip, the Love and Mystery of music is made manifest in the form of the crowd: they are clumsy and embarrassing, but they pick him up when it’s time to sing his heart out. And now, every time I hear the song live, either recorded or in person, I get to sing along with a grown up, boring-ass crowd comprising survivors of the teenaged wasteland that almost took each of us down.
A few years ago, which you might construe as almost 20, I lent my pickup truck to the couple that lived below me for the afternoon so they could move something. A little while later, I asked my neighbor if they had listened to the CD that was in the truck, Susan Tedeschi’s Just Won’t Burn. “Oh no. I saw all the cute stickers on her guitar on the cover and I just couldn’t listen to it,” she said. Her loss.
Tedeschi, already raking in the good reviews for her new album Let Me Get By with husband Derek Trucks, has only gotten better. This performance, from an Austin City Limits from 2003, is a perfect example of the dichotomy between her personality and her music. Pixieish and cute, she seems almost timid in her introduction to Dylan’s song.
But when she starts singing, her voice fills every space in the room. You can see the audience being won over, and with the help of some great performances by sidemen Jason Crosby (violin) and organist William Green, she holds the crowd’s attention right up until the final second.
On June 21, 1977, Elvis Presley looked like shit. He was playing a concert in Rapid City, South Dakota, and he looked a parody of “old Elvis”: puffy, sweaty, bedazzled in a rhinestoned jumpsuit that went two steps beyond flashy into ridiculous. Yet against all odds, he delivered one of the best performances of his entire career. Two months later he was dead.
Near the end of the evening’s concert, Elvis threw a curveball. He’d already gotten through the hits: “That’s All Right,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and had just finished a half-assed mumble through “Hound Dog.” Next up on the setlist was his standard closer, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” But as the band was about to start, he waved them off. “I’m gonna do this first,” he said, and sat down at the piano.
The way he set the next song up indicated another train wreck was imminent. The piano didn’t have a mic stand, so he made a stagehand stand there holding the microphone up to his mouth. “I don’t know all the chords,” he muttered, “so if you hear me getting my fingers caught in the keys back here you know what it is.” He introduced the song as one about to be released on his new album Unchained Melody, but that was not the album’s title (it was Moody Blue).
Then he began to sing. The song was “Unchained Melody” (he got that title right at least) and he put in passion and heartbreak that long been absent in his work. Really, the performance speaks for itself, Elvis at his most vulnerable, alone at the piano (beware the YouTube versions where you hear a band; RCA foolishly dubbed that onto a posthumous single, but the performance was solo). Amidst all the excess, the hangers-on, the drugs, and the rhinestones, The King’s true talent shone through, one last time.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.