Finding Covers

In The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Second Edition, 1989, edited by Donald Clarke), “cover” is described as “a recording of a song already a hit by another artist; now more especially of a song already recorded by its composer.”

The entry goes on to explain how: “In the mid-50’s ‘cover’ took on a special meaning as white artists covered R&B material, often with watered down lyrics (to say nothing of style).”

Then: “In the ’60’s United Kingdom pop stars covered Chuck Berry and other black artists out of acknowledged admiration.”

Also: “A cover often revived a good song and made more money for the composer.” For example, “In the late ’70’s-early ’80’s Willie Nelson could make a friend a lot of money by covering a song on an album.”

The Encyclopedia’s entry concludes: “There are signs in the ’90’s that people are more willing to sing each other’s songs as new pop and rock groups seek an exclusively young audience, while more discriminating artists and fans are more interested in good songs.”

After many hours of intense observation and detailed analysis (especially over this past summer), I have come to the following conclusion in regard to the use of covers in 21st century popular music.

These days, many performing musicians – no matter how extensive and revered their personal catalogues of original material – are actively keeping alive the songs that they grew up with and/or were inspired by.

And they’re having a great time doing so.       

For instance…

On Friday, August 30, at the Prescott Park Arts Festival in Portsmouth, NH: during the encores of the long and luminous concert by Steve Earl & The Dukes (and Duchesses), Steve signaled the ensemble’s segue into a rousing version of The Band’s 1969 hit “Rag, Mama Rag” by shouting out “For Levon!” (the late Levon Helm was the dearly loved drummer and frequent lead vocalist for The Band.)

On Friday, September 6, at The Comcast Center in Mansfield, MA: midway through Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ hard-rocking opening set, the entire band gleefully gathered around Grace at center stage for semi-acoustic renditions of Junior Parker’s 1953 R&B song “Mystery Train” and the 1970 Grateful Dead classic “Friend Of The Devil.” (“Mystery Train” is probably best known for the cover version that Elvis Presley recorded in 1955.)

Of these and all of the excellent covers that I had the pleasure and privilege of hearing over the summer, one of my favorites presented itself early in July.

On Wednesday, July 3, at The Prescott Park Arts Festival: Lake Street Dive presented their dazzling interpretation of “Faith,” the 1987 George Michael mega-hit and top selling song of 1988.

Check it out for yourself! (This is a live video of Lake Street Dive from July, 2012.)

Lake Street Dive (not Drive) is a quartet – Rachael Price: lead vocals & guitar; Mike Olson: trumpet, guitar & bass vocals; Bridget Kearney: upright bass & vocals; Mike Calabrese: drums & vocals – that formed in 2006 when its members were all students at the New England Conservatory in Boston, MA.

The studio recording of the group’s cover of “Faith” is available on the band’s 2012, 6-song CD called Fun Machine. This highly recommended CD also contains outstanding covers of “I Want You Back” – the 1969 debut single from The Jackson Five – and “Rich Girl” – the 1977 hit by Hall & Oates.

I found many other wonderful covers this past summer that I will be sharing with you in the months to come. Let me know what you think of them and please feel free to share any discoveries of your own!

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