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.
In today’s musical environment, which more often than not comprises manufactured stars singing over-produced, Autotuned, formulaic pop tunes, it’s easy to forget that for many classic artists, fame came neither quickly nor easily. It’s almost a cliché to think about rock and rollers struggling through the most challenging and meager of circumstances, waiting for that elusive big break. For some artists, adversity is destructive; for Macon, Georgia’s Allman Brothers Band, it was formative. The band’s hardships drove them closer together, cementing their commitments to each other and to success. Their persistence paid off. They were awarded multiple gold and platinum albums, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and ranked #52 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
If you’re looking for a signature song that represents the legacy of these elder statesmen of Southern Rock, “Midnight Rider” is, arguably, the best choice. It was a concert mainstay since it was first recorded in 1970 and, according to Secondhand Songs, has been covered nearly twice as many times as “Whipping Post,” and over three times more often than “Ramblin’ Man.”
While many great versions of “Midnight Rider” are out there, many of them sound overly similar to each other. Dozens of solo acoustic covers and numerous country versions exist; far fewer take the song in a different direction. We’ve selected three of those departures here. Three distinct versions, each one adding its own little bit to the legacy of the Allman Brothers Band. Of these three outstanding versions…
UB40 did a good job.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings did it better.
A Memory Down did it best.
UB40 – Midnight Rider (Allman Brothers Band cover)
British reggae popsters UB40 deliver a version of “Midnight Rider” that’s much lighter in tone and feel than the original. With an emphasis on horn and keyboards, the music paints a picture of a less desperate protagonist. You can almost visualize him just hanging out on his front porch, unconcernedly singing “ain’t gonna let ‘em catch me, no” as if he’s confident that that’s the case. It’s an interesting interpretation.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Midnight Rider (Allman Brothers Band cover)
Sharon Jones was an amazingly talented artist who was taken from us way too soon. Although she didn’t release her first record until age 40, she made the most of her time in the industry, having a positive influence on soul and funk music for the twenty years that followed. She was a tough customer, too; it took two bouts of cancer and a stroke to end her life. While this version of “Midnight Rider,” like UB40’s, is horns-forward, Jones’ earthy, soulful vocals give it a different vibe, more defiant than world-weary. Her vocals really take off during the third chorus. It’s a shame she’s no longer here to garner the appreciation she deserves.
A Memory Down – Midnight Rider (Allman Brothers Band cover)
“Midnight Rider” gets strikingly different treatment from Littleton, Colorado’s A Memory Down. With an abbreviated opening featuring lots of echo on both acoustic guitar and vocals, the intro is reminiscent of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi. When the rest of the band joins in, the song goes in a hard rock, almost metal, direction. The slightly slower tempo and cranked-up intensity make the desperation and plaintive nature of the lyrics even clearer. Vocalist Phil Leblanc makes one lyrical substitution in the final verse, swapping out “some old bed I’ll soon be sharing” with “some old bed I won’t be sharing,” underscoring the theme loneliness. It’s a strong version that retains the spirit of the original while sounding musically different.