Last Monday, America woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed. There was yet another senseless massacre, this time in Las Vegas. Even more traumatic for us music fans, it took place in our church, at a concert venue. Later in the afternoon, the news broke that Tom Petty had died, and, a few hours on, that Tom Petty had died a second time. It was like we were getting sucker punched over and over again.
His words made us feel better: that losing is part of life, but we should never give up hope. That the world may drag us down, but people will be there for us. And that we should be free to chase our dreams, whether it be deep within ourselves or making them part of the world. We shouldn’t back down because Tom wouldn’t. To bullies, to being ostracized, and to being anything but ourselves.
Petty was a classic rock and roll survivor, ruling radio in the 1970s, winning MTV video music awards in the ’80s, and writing the song that came back from the dead to be the only happy moment in Silence of the Lambs in the ’90s. He recorded some of America’s most anthemic and heartfelt music, and although his later output declined some, he never slowed down, collaborating in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys and becoming Johnny Cash’s sideman with the Heartbreakers, reforming his old band Mudcrutch, and endlessly touring.
Upon the news of his death, artists starting playing tribute covers immediately, both in the studio and onstage. I’ve listened to a few dozen over the past few days. Here are my favorites.
For years, Phish superphans and the band’s many detractors – so far apart on so much else – have been able to agree on one thing: the band does some killer live covers. Phish long ago made a Halloween tradition out of covering another band’s album in full, tackling ambitious choices like the Beatles’ White Album and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. And “ambitious” was also the keyword for the band’s just-completed thirteen night run at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Dubbed the “Baker’s Dozen,” each night featured a different donut theme and, more significantly, no song repeated the entire two weeks.
But back to the donuts. The band took the silly premise seriously, theming their sets each night around a donut flavor. This led to a number of surprise covers that they’ve never played before (or probably ever will again). Strawberry-donut night got “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Strawberry Letter 23.” Chocolate-donut night got “Chocolate Rain” and “You Sexy Thing” – originally by Hot Chocolate. They even dug deep into lyrics, playing the one Radiohead song that talks about lemons.
Such first-time-ever covers tend to appeal even to non-fans because they tend to be short and –
let’s keep the donut theme going here – sweet. Unlike a jelly donut, on a song they’ve never play before they rarely jam. Instead, the fun and sheer rock chops to come forward in a way they may not on the heady stuff.
So I’ve ranked all the first-time covers from the past two weeks of Phish’s concerts, below. I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan myself – I once wrote an article defending their home of Burlington, Vermont from its jam-band stereotype – but some of these are among the best performances I’ve heard by them. Others…are not.
Earlier this month, a beardless Robin Pecknold covered Fred Neil‘s “The Dolphins” during the Fleet Foxes frontman’s solo set opening for Joanna Newsom’s “special guest” at Seattle’s sold-out Paramount Theatre. Pecknold ended his short performance with a stripped-down interpretation of one of the best songs by the cult ’60s Greenwich folk-rocker.
You may remember that back in September we posted an interview with “Fleet Foxes.” That’s “Fleet Foxes” in quotes, since it wasn’t actually Fleet Foxes, but a guy who covered pop songs in the harmony-acoustic style of Fleet Foxes, and did so damn well. Since then, the imposter known as Fleet Foxes Sing has gotten more press, from the likes of New York Magazine and BlackBook (who claims our interview blew the lid on the farce, though it wasn’t exactly a secret).
In 1965, a 16-year old Jackson Browne wrote the song “These Days.” It was first recorded by German model Nico in 1967, then Gregg Allman, and then Browne himself in 1973. These three versions in differing styles have created the foundation for one of the more popular cover songs in the last 45 years. Other notable artists to cover the track include; Nitty Gritty Band, John Cale, Tom Rush, 10,000 Maniacs, Fountains of Wayne, and St. Vincent.