Kurt Vile’s new album (watch my moves) features 14 original songs and one surprise cover: Bruce Springsteen’s “Wages Of Sin.” To say this isn’t an oft-covered song is putting it mildly; the only prior version SecondHandSongs lists is the one by Damien Jurado and Rosie Thomas that ranked high on our Best Springsteen Covers Ever list, from the tribute album Badlands – A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
“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.
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.
Mary J. Blige made headlines earlier this month when she sang Bruce Springsteen‘s “American Skin (41 Shots)” directly to Hillary Clinton during an interview. Now she has released a proper recording, accompanied by Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly addressed many of the same issues as this song. It ain’t no secret, to quote the track, why Blige is covering it right now. Though Springsteen wrote it 15 years ago, the topic of unwarranted police shootings is more prevalent in the age of Black Lives Matter than ever. At the time, he earned boos from policemen for the song, and it will be interesting to see if Blige and Lamar’s version inspires the same outrage.
When folks have paid tribute to Merle Haggard recently, they’ve mostly picked the obvious songs: “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee.” But Grammy-nomined singer-songwriter John Fullbright – an actual Okie, unlike Merle – dug far deeper into the catalog, for the best Haggard cover yet. It’s an obscure song called “Sometimes I Dream,” from Haggard’s 1990 album Blue Jungle. How many people know Haggard albums from the ’90s?