Stevie Wonder’s 1984 Oscar-winning megahit “I Just Called to Say I Love You” has earned much derision over the years due to its unapologetic cheesiness. The most famous critique came from Barry Judd, Jack Black’s record store clerk character in High Fidelity, who called it “sentimental tacky crap.” Still, the tune has endured. It is currently listed as Wonder’s fifth most popular song on Spotify. The refrain is darn catchy after all.
With his new album Lean on Me, Blue Note artist José James provides track-by-track recreations of soul master Bill Withers’ best-known hits. James has a phenomenal voice that captures the spirit of the originals and would make him an ideal frontman for a Withers tribute act. As a result, the album’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. James mirrors Withers’ sound so precisely that you have to give each track a close listen to discern any differences between his versions and the originals. Unfortunately, in the streaming era this presents a conundrum: why should one listen to the perfect tribute and not just click on Withers’ originals?
History has been kind to the legacies of perceived second-bananas John Oates and Bob Weir. In a recent comedy special, Chris Rock noted how Oates deserves just as much credit as Daryl Hall for their long running partnership. “I don’t know what Oates does,” Rock quipped. “But Hall never had a hit record without him.” Similarly, Weir was always perceived to be second to Jerry Garcia during the lifespan of the the Grateful Dead. But in the two decades since Jerry’s death he has played an essential role in keeping the spirit of the band alive.
Oates and Weir recently teamed up during an Oates solo performance at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California. It was an encore of their previous pairing at the venue in 2015. Weir blends in so well with Oates’ band that one hopes they make a habit out of this.
Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” has such a memorable opening riff that whether it’s covered by a high school marching band or Pat Boone, it’s instantly recognizable. The latest artist to take the trip to “Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline” is jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who included an instrumental cover on his new album Kaleidoscope.
Chestnut is not the first jazz artist to take on Deep Purple’s classic (Google “Smoke on the Water” Jazz Covers if you really need to hear more). But in his five-minute cover he takes the song in a number of experimental directions. So much so that if drug-addled ‘70s rock fans were suddenly transplanted to a Chestnut concert they might have their minds collectively blown.
“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is a blues standard that dates back to the 1920s. William “Hambone Willie” Newbern made the earliest recording the track, then known as “Roll and Tumble Blues.” In 1950, the song was famously recorded by Muddy Waters, who claimed credit as the songwriter. His rendition served as inspiration for the rash of covers by psychedelic blues artists in the ‘60s, including Cream, Canned Heat and Johnny Winter. With such a legacy it’s not really a surprise that classic rockers Rod Stewart and Billy Gibbons — the lead singer and guitarist for ZZ Top — each cover the track on their recent albums.
Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” is a highly cerebral breakup song. Reworking an old folk tune called “Handsome Molly” as the title track to a 1995 album, the song starts out with the narrator wishing he was at a bar in Austin drinking “Mad Dog margaritas.” The lyrics then depart on a whirlwind trip around the world, passing through Dublin, Fort Worth, Paris, Spain, and ending on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Throughout his career Clark wrote a number of country hits for others including Bobby Bare, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, but “Dublin Blues” is his most popular song as an artist on Spotify, having earned nearly three million listens.