One of the best things to come out of the coronavirus lockdown, should one be allowed to say such a thing, has been the run of homespun lockdown recordings, the artists stranded at their homes with neither the staples of touring or studio recording being much accessible to them. Sadly, this too has also been one of the worst things of the pandemic, with rather too many bedroom warblings of the same old, same old staples and standards of coverland. Thankfully, Aoife O’Donovan’s Aoife Plays “Nebraska” is one of the former type. The simplicity of this performance is the strength here, the songs already spare and sparse, with O’Donovan’s rich vocal poignancy being the only change from the gruffer original. Even her guitar is almost only just there, like curls of smoke from a background smoldering grate, there more to add texture and atmosphere than necessarily to accompany.
O’Donovan, should you be unfamiliar with the name, was the singer and front woman for the contemporary old-time string band Crooked Still. Having honed her vocal skills on yearly trips back home to the “old country,” she is equally adept with Irish folk and Appalachian bluegrass, one of the reasons why, in 2013, she was picked up by the long-running Jerry Douglas/Aly Bain TV series Transatlantic Sessions. More recently she has made albums of her own and a part of the the latter-day Emmylou/Linda/Dolly trio, I’m With Her, alongside Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz.
Nebraska was the 1982 record by Bruce Springsteen that nearly didn’t exist, at least in the form we now know and love. Springsteen worked alone on the songs, committing the demos to tape, ahead of bring to the E Street Band’s attention. Perhaps even on a whim, the decision was made to release the songs as they stood: just Bruce, his voice and guitar, some mouth harp and little much else. It was a shrewd move, the album seen latterly as one of Springsteen’s best, with several of his most memorable and most covered songs. It has even had an official whole album cover tribute version, 2000’s Badlands: a Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, with its stellar roll of the great and good: Johnny Cash, Chrissie Hynde, Los Lobos, queuing up to give their best shots at the material. Last year we named it one of the 50 Best Tribute Albums Ever.)
Aoife Plays “Nebraska” is actually a direct lift of the recording O’Donovan made as a livestream concert in May of this year, that concert a benefit for the MusiCares Covid-19 Relief fund. It has now been released through the auspices of Bandcamp. MusiCares is a non-profit organization with a long tradition in assisting the welfare of musicians, often in the field of recovery from addiction. In a strange way, my one criticism of this project, at least in album format, is the attempt to play it as a show, so there are (brief) between song introductions and attempts at banter with the televisual audience. It feels a little false, without the accompanying visuals, although I appreciate that the intention was that this be a show rather than the sterile artefact thereof. And it is but a minor quibble, such is the quality of the ten songs, played in order. (Despite my critique, I did enjoy, and smiled, as she announced, midway, the need to now turn the record over.)
Highlights perhaps depend on which of the songs are already your favorite, but the opening title track sets a bar that is hard to rise above. Surprisingly, it is the songs that I like less in their original format that come over best here: “Open All Night” carries a far greater sense of vibrancy with O’Donovan than with Springsteen’s holler. Sounds better without the electric guitar, too. Likewise “Johnny 99” carries a little more contrast, the vocal style telling the tale in a less aggressive fashion. Her version of “My Father’s House,” too, carries a purity that I find attractive. The two epic songs, “Atlantic City” and “State Trooper” need a few more listens, but I can see them soon getting as many listens as the originals. Which is really the acid test of tributes and charity exercises, whether they can stand their own ground after the event, and sustain plays on further days. It’s a definite yes on this account.
Aoife Plays “Nebraska” Tracklisting, all Bruce Springsteen covers:
Mansion on the Hill
Open All Night
My Father’s House
Reason to Believe