At the first show of their recent three-night run in NYC, The Decemberists brought out singer Olivia Chaney for a mysterious song they didn’t really explain. Featuring Chaney leading on harpsichord and vocals, it was weird and proggy in a similar way to the Decemberists’ own album Hazards of Love. Now, a few weeks later, we know what the performance was teasing: an upcoming Decemberists/Chaney covers album under the band name Offa Rex.
Any band from Asbury Park has an obvious choice to make. You can run like hell from any Boss comparisons or embrace your city’s favorite son. Levy & the Oaks has chosen the latter, healthier option on a new cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” premiering below.
“I’m on Fire” is one of Springsteen’s most-covered songs, and the first few guitar strums might make you expect another paint-by-numbers Americana version. But the moment Lou Panico starts singing, it becomes something special. He may hail from Springsteen’s stomping grounds, but he is not too beholden to tradition, changing the song’s melody and rhythm to make it his own.
“Streets of Philadelphia” is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best-known songs since his 1980s ubiquity, even winning him an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1994. But for whatever reason, the man himself doesn’t play it live very much. Since the 1990s, he’s only performed it twice outside the titular city (and even there he often skips it).
Luckily, other artists are filling the void. The past month has seen two terrific covers surface, one by Ryan Adams and the other by Berlin electronic duo Lea Porcelain. While Adams has a tendency to cover less obvious fare – think Danzig or Taylor Swift (for a full album no less) – Springsteen falls squarely in his wheelhouse. So his cover is about what you’d expect from a solo acoustic performance – but few artists put as much emotion into solo acoustic performances as Ryan Adams. Even if he’s not wildly rearranging it, his cover proves powerful in a quiet way.
Amanda Shires is best known as a violinist (also for being Jason Isbell’s wife and sometimes bandmate), but on her tender new cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” she ditches her signature instrument for the ukulele. At least it has the same number of strings!
She proves equally adept at the new instrument, plucking it quietly to accompany her delicate singing. She gets bonus points too for not forcing a switch to “I’m Your Woman,” the sort of dumb lyric change too many singers do when covering a song by someone of the opposite gender.
Last year, in preparing to release his experimental new album 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon held a one-time-only festival/art performance in Berlin. He brought a number of his favorite musicians to hang out and collaborate, performing new music in the round. The festival just posted videos of many of the performances, including a wonderful “Folk Circle” session that features Vernon trading folk songs with Damien Rice, Sam Amidon, Erlend Øye, O, and Ragnar Kjartansson.
Norwegian composer (and half of Kings of Convenience, who released our favorite cover of 2009) Erlend Øye covers The Moore Brothers’ 2004 song “New For You,” followed by our buddy Sam Amidon leading the crowd in a singalong of Appalachian folk song “Johanna The Row-di.” A French singer who goes simply by O sings a traditional French song, Damien Rice breaks the covers theme by playing his own “The Professor & La Fille Danse,” and then we get to the piece de resistance. Vernon plays a song from the man he calls “my favorite songwriter,” John Prine.
Irish singer Ciaran Lavery wears his influences on his sleeves. His last album had a track called “Okkervil River” about hearing that band on the radio, and his new live set features a gorgeous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” His emotive lilt might remind you of his countryman Glen Hansard (himself no stranger to great Bruce covers) and he more than does Springsteen’s tribute to AIDS victims justice.
Despite “Streets of Philadelphia” being arguably one of Springsteen’s best-known songs – certainly from the last few decades at least – the Boss himself doesn’t play it live too much. We’re grateful Lavery and his string quartet stepped in to fill the void with this beautiful version. Listen to it below, along with equally lovely covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the same album.