Monday, July 23, 2012

'Check It Out. What Are You Saying? What Are You Playing?' It's A Cover Song, Man.

One of the things that make the great classic songs so special is that when they are interpreted by great contemporary artists they can become greater still. 
The works of Cole Porter, Hoagie Carmichael and Ellie Greenwich as covered by artists ranging from Linda Ronstadt to Willie Nelson to Elvis Costello come to mind, but this dynamic also is at work when the songs of more recent songwriting icons like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are "covered" in music business parlance. Occasionally a cover becomes more popular than the original.  Santana's version of "Black Magic Woman," first performed by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, and Jimi Hendrix's version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," were huge hits that eclipsed the originals. 
I have three favorite cover albums.
Red, Hot and Blue is a 1990 release that raised a considerable amount of dough for AIDS awareness and research.  It includes no fewer than 21 covers of Cole Porter songs by, among many others, Neneh Cherry ("I've Got You Under My Skin"), Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop ("Well Did You Evah") and U2 ("Night and Day).  Porter would have approved.
Joni Mitchell was pigeon-holed early in her career as a folkie with a knack for clever lyrics.  This was disproven when she recorded Hejira in 1976, a seminal album featuring late jazz bass great Jaco Pastorius, and her music became increasingly jazz infused as she continued to mature as an artist.  In 1979, she recorded Mingus, a collaboration with Charles Mingus just before the legendary bassist's death, that horrified her fans still stuck in the Court and Spark era.  Tough. 
Other jazz greats soon beat a path to Mitchell's Laurel Canyon door, culminating in River: The Joni Letters, a  2007 album produced by Herbie Hancock that features Norah Jones ("Court and Spark"), Tina Turner ("Edith and the Kingpin"), Corinne Bailey Rae ("River"), Luciana Souza ("Amelia"), and Leonard Cohen ("The Jungle Line").  Mitchell not only approved, she sings "Tea Leaf Prophecy" on the album.
Then there is The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead, a "reverse" cover album of songs from the Dead's repertoire performed by the original artists. The 1995 release was a head turner for Deadheads who assumed that songs like "Cold Rain and Snow" (Obray Ramsey), "Iko Iko" (The Dixie Cups) and "Morning Dew" (Bonnie Dobson) were Dead originals.
This brings us to one of the great songwriting teams of the last half century -- Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Dead -- whose extraordinarily rich American songbook is chockablock with songs of love, loss, longing and the frontier spirit.  There is no doubt that the body of their work compares favorably with the works of the gods of Tin Pan Alley.
No cover, let alone album of covers, has so intimately captured the Garcia-Hunter genius than Songs of the Grateful Dead, a 2010 release featuring Jesse McReynolds, David Nelson and Stu Allen, among others, that only recently came to my attention when I heard their haunting cover of "Stella Blue" on the radio.
McReynolds is a longtime mandolin virtuoso, Nelson was a member of the original New Riders of the Purple Sage, while Allen has played with Garcia and San Francisco jam bands. 
Not to take anything away from Garcia, whose melodies are superb, but he was not the strongest of vocalists and sometimes garbled Hunter's lyrics.  Not so with McReynolds, who articulates the lyrics beautifully in a crystal-clear tenor, enabling me to hear old songs all over again for the first time, while his mandolin-infused arrangements are lovely.
There is not a weak cover on Songs of the Grateful Dead, and beyond "Stella Blue" four stand out: "Franklin's Tower," "Loser," "Deal" and "Alabama Getaway."  The album concludes with a Hunter-McReynolds composition titled "Day by Day." 
The album is, in a sense, the completion of a circle. 
Garcia adored bluegrass and first heard McReynolds on a road trip to the South in 1964.  In 1970, he formed Old and in the Way, a bluegrass "supergroup" featuring Peter Rowan on mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle, John Kahn on bass and himself on rip-snorting banjo.  This band's only studio recording remains one of the best selling bluegrass albums of all time, and I am privileged to have seen them play at the late great Sunset Park near West Grove, Pennsylvania.

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