Indie rock greats Yo La Tengo recently wrapped up their eight-night Hanukkah run of live shows — a tradition that’s lasted multiple decades — at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. Whether you’re a new or longtime acolyte of the trio, Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah shows are an ideal entry point into the group’s ouevre. From even just one of the eight nights, which each have a unique setlist and special guest openers, you can grab a pretty good sense of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew’s creative spectrum, not to mention the vast web of influences and collaborators, old and new, that fuel them. Still, the band’s Hanukkah sets are most exciting to consider as one epic and comprehensive experience — some kind of combo between endurance exercise and heady jigsaw puzzle.
Dave Richardson – Bright Phoebus (Lal & Mike Waterson cover)
Vermonter Dave Richardson digs deep into folk-rock history on his new album Palms to Pines, covering the title track of Lal & Mike Waterson’s 1972 album Bright Phoebus. Deeply obscure at the time – only 1,000 copies were initially pressed – it became known as “folk music’s Sgt. Pepper” among the very, very few people who actually heard it. The record has seen a recent resurgence with champions like Arcade Fire and Jarvis Cocker leading to a 2017 re-release on überhip Domino Records. Richardson makes it sound like a classic all along.
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
There are few bands with such a way with covers as the Cowboy Junkies, that in no small part to the icy warmth of singer, Margo Timmins, an astonishing 60 this month. She was born in Montreal, 1/27/61, and I have long been a fan, maybe not from the very start, but certainly once ‘Trinity Sessions’ threw down the gauntlet, quietly and emphatically. Birmingham Town Hall, in the English midlands, used to be a dreadful venue, any sounds not completely muffled being left free to echo around the pillars, hopeless for any band with any degree of amplification. It has since had a refurb, and has lost, thankfully, that legacy, but the Junkies were perfection there then, every pin dropping with perfect clarity, the most important pin being that of Timmins, an ethereal shimmer filling the gap between the controlled calm of the instrumentation.
In the subsequent years the band, Timmins and her two brothers, Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, along with family friend Alan Anton playing bass, have strayed little from that template. Initially supplemented by the instrumentation of Jeff Bird and others, adding mandolin, harmonica, dobro, steel and fiddle, latterly it would become the core quartet, as blues became as much an influence as country had been before. The band had been started by Michael, a record-hungry youth who had been in bands since high school. Margo had never sung in public before he goaded her to add vocals, and she initially sang facing away from the stage, such was her crippling shyness, echoing the experiences of Michael Stipe and Jim Morrison, two other equally iconic vocalists.
Over a 35-plus-year career, the Cowboy Junkies have produced 18 studio albums, six live albums, and seven compilations, with innumerably more material courtesy their website. (Sadly it seems that much of that rare and archive material in currently unavailable.) Covers have always been a feature; most of their records containing one or two, and they’re staples on tribute projects, to artists as varied as Gram Parsons and Blind Willie Johnson. In 2009, Timmins also found the time to release an all-cover solo album, enticingly entitled Margo’s Corner: The Ty Tyrfu Sessions, Volume 1. She has also added her froideur to any number of other artists, as a backing or additional singer, usually to fellow Canadians.
Let’s drill down into some of the best examples of her transformative skills, starting with perhaps the best known and, arguably, the best example.
A virtual festival celebrating the music of Cat Stevens aired on YouTube on December 5 with 42 different artists covering his songs. Passenger did “Father and Son,” James Morrison did “The Wind” and Imelda May did “How Can I Tell You.” Rock trio Haim, who have received quite a bit of positive attention this year for their third album Women in Music Part III, was the second act to perform, delivering a beautiful acoustic cover of “Hard Headed Woman.”
Ashley McBryde – You’re Lookin’ at Country (Loretta Lynn cover)
The Country Music Hall of Fame recently presented a video series called Big Night at the Museum, getting modern country and Americana artists to cover Hall of Famers. Lucinda Williams did Johnny Cash, Miranda Lambert did John Prine, and a bunch more. Best by a blonde-streaked hair was Ashley McBryde, a performer who skirts the line between country, Americana, and brawny rock, proving her bona fides on Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country.”
Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Will Oldham have been covering songs together for years, dating back to a 1994 EP where, as Smog (Callahan) and Palace Music (Oldham), they tackled Leonard Cohen’s “Tonight Will Be Fine.” Now they’re continuing the collaboration on a pair of new covers – not officially announced as the start of a covers album or anything, but one wonders…