Willie Nelson’s giant 90th birthday concert in Los Angeles featured a whole host of covers. Some of them featured the man himself. Admittedly, that makes those not really covers, so we’ll feature a couple Willie-less Willie tunes. First up, Beck tackles Willie’s Red Headed Stranger classic “Hands on the Wheel.” (Find another cover of this song in the Best of the Rest list.)Continue reading »
It feels like a cliché these days to start one of these year-end lists writing about “the times we live in,” but, as you read and listen to our picks, you’ll find the specter of the coronavirus and lockdown pretty unavoidable.
One of these albums is titled Songs from Isolation; another is Awesome Quarantine Mix-Tape. Even on some albums where it’s so blindingly obvious, it’s there. Aoife Plays Nebraska is a recording of a quarantine livestream she gave. Los Lobos envisioned Native Sons as a balm for being stuck at home, unable to tour. And then there’s the tribute to John Prine, the long-awaited sequel to 2010’s Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, inspired by his death from the coronavirus last year.
But many of these albums recall better times too. Two are belated releases of in-real-life, pre-pandemic tribute concerts, one to Leonard Cohen and the other to Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes (well, I guess both of those subject are kind of bummers, in different ways…). Tributes abound to other recent deaths – Andy Gibb, Justin Townes Earle, Roky Erickson – but we have plenty to artists still with us too, like Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, and a host of underground psych-rock bands you’ve never heard of.
Then there are those that don’t fit any narrative. An artist felt inspired by an unconnected bunch of songs, decided to cover ’em, and brought them all together into a cohesive record. What do Vampire Weekend and The Supremes have in common? Lauren O’Connell’s beatifully intimate imaginings. How about Allen Toussaint and Calexico? Robert Plant and Alison Krauss harmonizing all over ’em. Whether it’s a quote-unquote “lockdown record” or just someone saying, “hell, why not get a bunch of folkie weirdos to play Phish tunes?,” every album on this list brought something meaningful to – ugh – the times we live in.
Covering the Dead means a whole lot more than just playing the tunes; to give their songs credibility, there also needs to be a recreation of their spirit. That Dave McMurray has it in spades is immediately apparent from the first few bars of “Fire on the Mountain,” the opening track on his new album Grateful Deadication. That faithful dancing-bear swagger, halfway between a lope and a canter, is indubitably present, correct and reporting for duty. Few bands have such an unmistakable footprint, and to reproduce that–and with your own voice, yet–is little short of remarkable.
McMurray’s “voice” is his saxophone, predominately tenor, and a thing of beauty it is, as is Grateful Deadication as a whole. McMurray is the real deal, a dyed in the wool jazzman with a long and parallel career in sessions; it is his sax on records as diverse as the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge and Brian Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.
Remarkably, he had never really heard the Dead and their music until a chance encounter with Bob Weir, leading to his playing alongside him and the Wolf Bros at 2019’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Intrigued by the odd chord structures and quirky time signatures that litter the songs of the Dead, McMurray immersed himself in their back catalog. He found he was able to fully get into their music, and to appreciate its closeness to the jazz of artists he had greater awareness of–Miles Davis, Weather Report, even Soft Machine.
This, in turn, led to Grateful Deadication, which features his own regular sidemen as well as cameos from Bettye LaVette and Weir, and is his second album for acclaimed jazz label Blue Note. (His first, Music Is Life, featured a cover of the White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army.”) Continue reading »
Adia Victoria recorded this powerful Badu cover for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. She said of the time she discovered the song, “I was looking for something that was bigger and deeper and felt more warm than the idea of a Christian God. And I dove into my imagination. And the first time I heard ‘on and on’ it felt like Erykah Badu was waiting for me to be her there.”Continue reading »