Jun 142020
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

The recent rioting and violence in U.S. cities forms the backdrop to this remembrance of the much-loved Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher, who died on this day in 1995–making this the 25th anniversary of his death. The connection is simply this: in the early ’70s, when Belfast, Northern Ireland was a war-torn site of terrorist bombings and assassinations with rival paramilitary units roaming the streets, Rory defied the fear that kept other performers away. Gallagher returned repeatedly to the shattered European capital, playing sold-out shows that brought Catholics together with Protestants, Loyalists together with Nationalists, healing the region’s division with music. For a few magic hours, anyway.

The Irish still remember his bravery and of course his music–on this day especially–though both Belfast and Ireland have transformed dramatically since. The peace agreements between the warring sides were signed in 1998, just three years too late for Rory Gallagher to witness the achievement.
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Jun 012020
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

son house and friends

The biography of delta blues musician Son House reads like an old blues song, composed of familiar fabrics borrowed from others, a patchwork quilt of “bluesman” tropes. See if you’ve seen these patterns before:

  • He made his first recordings in 1930, quickly and under shabby conditions. They didn’t sell.
  • He became a street preacher, and rejected the blues as “the devil’s music.”
  • He served time in Mississippi’s Parchment Farm penitentiary (on charges related to a shootout in a juke joint).
  • He migrated north along the Mississippi to escape farm labor and to find an industrial job (working in an East St. Louis steel plant for a time).
  • Field recordings of his songs were captured by Alan Lomax in 1941 and ‘42, becoming part of the Library of Congress folk song collection. (Congress stopped funding folk song collection in 1942, not that this stopped Lomax.) Thereafter House became a railroad porter and quit music.
  • He was rediscovered by young white audiences in the early ’60s and lured back into a music career.
  • He played the Newport Folk Festival in ‘64, gigged around Europe and North America, and wrote new songs and issued new recordings until ill health sidelined him once again.

Although those early Son House recordings didn’t sell, they influenced younger players like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as did Son House himself, on a personal level. Howlin’ Wolf was yet another House protege of importance.

The Son House song we turn to today, “Death Letter,” doesn’t stem from his early days, but from his rediscovery period, specifically the 1965 sessions for Columbia. As often is true with folk music, the song’s actual history is a little murky. A couple of its verses appear on the 1930 song “My Black Mama, Part II.” The Lomax recordings from the ’40s also include snatches of the lyrics, but not the song itself. Then there’s the fact that Son House never established the definitive version; he performed the song extensively after his rediscovery, but rarely played the same set of verses.

Any artist who covers the song in his wake is left to draw from their favorite verses–or repeat the ones they know from the recording they happen to know. And of course they are free to bend the music itself to suit their mood. The three artists presented here don’t just change things up, they each make something distinctive from the commonplace blues progression that forms the song’s backbone.
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Feb 162018
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

jade bird covers

On the 25-track David Bowie tribute album Howard Stern’s show released this week, many of the names were familiar: Billy Corgan, Dawes, Peter Frampton, etc. One that didn’t ring a bell was Jade Bird. But her version of Bowie’s Hunky Dory deep cut “Quicksand” was a surprising highlight. I wondered how I was so late to discover her.

Turns out, I wasn’t. Despite running in such heady company, Jade Bird (her real name) has only released one EP so far. But things are moving fast for her, and by the time she releases her debut record, she might not be so under the radar any longer.

She was just nominated for the BBC Sound of 2018 which, if you’re not in the UK, might not mean much. But it’s as good a measure as any of who might blow up in the next year. Winners in the past decade include the then-little-known Sam Smith, HAIM, and, oh, Adele. Hell, the losers include The Weeknd, King Krule, and Savages (and that was just in one year!). Continue reading »

Nov 262014
 

Stark’s cover of “Death Letter” begins at a whisper. The video is black and white with scratches like an old newsreel, matching the historic treatment of this old Son House blues song, just vocals and resonator guitar with a slide. At one minute in, with a couple of drum beats for punctuation, the rest of the band kicks in, and the video changes to color. It’s an effective approach, mixing the old and the new, acknowledging your roots, and then going somewhere else. Continue reading »

Apr 262013
 

“Grinnin’ in Your Face,” by Delta blues pioneer Son House is a sparse affair: House claps while he sings about the value of true friendship, and that pretty much sums it up. Powerful, catchy, and simple. The cover by L.A.-via-Oregon singer, ZZ Ward, keeps that simplicity while modernizing this classic. Continue reading »

Oct 072011
 

This Week on Bandcamp rounds up our favorite covers to hit the site in the past seven days.

An all-new set of artists gets the Bandcamp spotlight today. From old-school blues to new-school Disney, from bleep-bloop chiptune to traditional folk balladry, we expect you’ll find something here to take you through the weekend. Continue reading »