A recent television appearance by a heavy metal band featured an impressive cover version of a well-known pop song half a century old. This got me thinking about other unlikely cover versions—the White Stripes’ rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” came to mind—so I thought I would do an episode that features “unlikely” covers. Actually, some of these are not at all unlikely—it’s no shock that the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones covered Delta blues songs—but all of these are remarkable in one way or another.
There is not one iota of self-conscious “I’m about to cover Bob Dylan so I better do it right” trepidation in this Polly Jean Harvey cover of “Highway 61 Revisited.” She storms into the bar with guns blazing, tears up some shit, throws down a couple of shots, tosses the bartender a one-hundred, and storms right back out onto Highway 61 to face her next conquest.
Tina Turner is the only person on the planet more qualified to be Mick Jagger than Jagger himself. This two-song medley of Stones classics shows why Turner’s live performances are the stuff of legends. The moves, the facial expressions, the vocal power, the famous legs: Tina is the complete package.
In the wake of David Bowie’s death, numerous artists who were touring at the time paid tribute by performing a Bowie song. There might be others that are better, but I chose this Bruce Springsteen rendition of “Rebel Rebel” because I find a certain irony in an old-school blue collar guy doing a song about defiant transgender flamboyance. That, plus you get a triple dose of the song’s monster riff with Springsteen, Miami Steve van Vandt, and Nils Lofgren all playing guitar.
Duane Allman taught himself to play slide guitar at home one afternoon with a Taj Mahal record and an empty medicine bottle. That’s like saying Ted Williams learned to hit by spending a day whacking fungoes on a sandlot. Reason would tell us that it is physically impossible to play slide guitar as well as Duane does on this live cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” from the Allman Brothers’ famed Fillmore East concert, but reason also tells us it is physically impossible to bat .400 in Major League Baseball.
Speaking of Duane Allman, he contributes some nice licks to Aretha Franklin’s emotionally charged cover of The Band’s “The Weight,” recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals when Duane was working as a session musician. Around the same time, Duane famously convinced a reluctant Wilson Pickett to record the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and the result was pure magic. Allman and Pickett exercise remarkable restraint for the first half of the song, but when they reach the coda, both cut loose with abandon, pushing each other to greater and greater heights.
When I was in grade school, my father would often seek solace after a bad day at the office by listening to an Eydie Gorme album. Thus, the first version of “Walk the Line” that I heard was not Johnny Cash’s original, but this heartbreaking cover by Gorme. For reasons far too complicated to explain here, this song occupies a special place in my soul.
Robert Johnson is one of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen whose songs the Rolling Stones tried to memorize while holed up in a tiny, freezing apartment during the winter of 1963. The Stones would later pay tribute to Johnson by covering two of his songs: “Love in Vain” appeared on Let it Bleed and “Stop Breaking Down” was included on Exile On Main Street. This live performance of “Love in Vain” was filmed during the Stones’ 1972 tour, when Mick Taylor was at the height of his magical powers and Mick Jagger was singing songs as if he meant them.
A high school friend of mine who is an amateur movie critic once told me that if everyone was honest about it, every single list of people’s favorite movies would include The Wizard of Oz. Similarly, I maintain that every single person’s list of favorite songs should include “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Not because that’s a cheesy sentimental thing to do, but because the song really is that good, and it has a universal appeal. Lots of “Rainbow” covers out there, but this bluesy take by Eric Clapton is one of the most enjoyable.
Some of the best covers are those where instead of merely re-structuring or re-interpreting, the artist goes all the way to the core of the song and reworks it from the inside out. Such is the case with Patti Smith’s revisionist cover of Them’s “Gloria,” which opens Smith’s seminal 1975 album Horses. Smith preserves the sexual exuberance of the original but weaves an existentialist poem into and around the song. The emotional urgency of Smith’s vocals is so palpable that even simple lines such as “here she comes, walking down the street” are fraught with possibilities.
For tonight’s featured video, I have saved a special treat for you. The band Disturbed (yes, the Disturbed of “Down with the Sickness” fame) appeared on Conan on March 28, 2016 and gave an absolutely stunning performance Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” The performance has deservedly garnered a lot of attention, so there is a chance that you have seen it already, but it is worthy of a second look. Watch it now, thank me later.