Posts Tagged ‘Rush’

Pictures are worth 1,000 or more words, we know. What I didn’t know was how instantaneously one could fold space and time and bridge a gap 40+ years wide without seam or pause. This one did. Like a tea-soaked Madeline from Marcel’s own side table, seeing that shot I was overcome with memory, with feeling the way I’d felt as a kid, the potential of having everything ahead of me, and of that road forward being hinted at in all those thoughts and feelings I’d felt right that very moment.

At first you only see two guys on a stage, both cradling huge, unwieldy double-neck guitars. To the left is Alex Lifeson, captured mid-run on the lower, 6-string neck of his beast, while to the right Geddy Lee thumps his upper 8-string bass. Then behind and between them you see Neil Peart and his relatively small but still impressive drum kit, all of them in flowing sleeves, mid-jam on what has to be…

“That’s Xanadu,” I say out loud to myself. And the floodgates open.

Summer of ’78, Charleston, South Carolina. Family vacation on Folly Beach, courtesy of my grandfather. Six, sometimes seven families under one beach house roof, along with the in-town cousins coming out for the day every day for two weeks, almost always around July 4th. I was 14.

My closest cousins were Keith and Carl, one day and one year younger than me, respectively. We only saw each other a few times a year growing up, but we were close. My younger sister had several cousins close to her age, too, and there were a few slightly older than us; altogether there were probably 20 people sleeping there, with another 10 to 20 coming by during the day.

All of the budding teens in the house were just discovering the kinds of music that would really start to last, would stick with and influence what each of us would be listening to for the rest of our lives, so we had turntables and cassette players aplenty. Faye, I remember, had a white-handled red case of 45’s that we’d all sort through to queue up favorites like “We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert” and “Timothy,” a gruesome (and near impossible to find today) tune about a group of kids who get stuck in a cave and have to, um, eat their way out, then wonder why they can’t find Timothy…

Up to then my only exposure to “real” Rock and Roll was Kiss, and more recently, Aerosmith via their Toys in the Attic album, which I’d bought not long before that and promptly wore out. Sure, all of the Kiss I’d heard to date was hard and heavy, and Aerosmith opened those avenues even wider for me, but I was not prepared for the responses evoked by what Keith, Carl and I would listen to the most, by a wide, wide margin, that summer.

I’m pretty sure it was Carl that had the double cassette (Oooh! Cool!) of Rush’s All the World’s a Stage, as well as their iconic 2112, both released in 1976 (2112 in April and AtWaS in September, for those keeping score at home,) and A Farewell to Kings, which debuted in September of 1977.

We probably listened to 2112 – both the side-long opus and its weird opposite with songs like “Twilight Zone” and “A Passage to Bangkok” the most often, just because extremely long songs with multiple parts and strange names were so foreign to us, and thus amazing, but there was a very close second, from Farewell… It’s called “Xanadu.”

We had no idea it was based on a long, eldritch poem from over a hundred years before, or that there were numerous other works that referenced that magical place where nobody ever aged, or even that some of the verses were lifted directly from the poem. (Discovering that poem later, and its own odd back story, was itself an epiphany.) We just knew it built, and built, and built, and then opened up wide with a majesty and an all-enveloping sound like none of us had ever experienced. Weird, Dazed and Confused-era Jimmy Page-like string manipulations from Alex’s guitar, staccato trills from Peart’s temple blocks, Geddy noodling around on some keys in the background, all lasting just enough to make you wonder, “What the…?” before going over the cliff and jamming like no three-piece had any right to do.

It’s very easy to isolate the two guitars from each other and from the monstrous underlying drum fills, and it’s hard to remember that these are just three guys playing their asses off. The speed, the virtuosity on each instrument, the runs up and down the scales, all leading to the most unearthly vocals any of us had ever heard (before or since) were otherworldly. It was damn close to sensory overload – almost too much to bear. But only almost.

Again, not knowing that many of the lyrics belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and not to Neil, (partly because they meshed so well stylistically,) I attributed all of their mastery to Peart. Even later, though, when I could tell which set belonged to whom, I marveled that the drummer could possibly have put together such soaring, mysterious, and evocative words; this was true in nearly every case, since there were usually only a song or two per album that he didn’t provide the lyrics for.

So here we have this sonic cathedral built by the ringing guitars and bass, bedrocked by the bones of the continuously astounding drumline, and buoyed by the mystical, magical, maddening imaginings of both Peart and Samuel T; almost Lovecraftian, Poe-like despair and madness, mapping perfectly to Coleridge’s own struggle from “the last immortal man” to “a mad immortal man” and every state in between. Then a long, ringing fade that crashes and flows like the River Alph itself, until silence reigns again, the chilled caves of ice quiet once more.

I’m surprised that tape survived the summer.

Then the long ride home after two wondrous weeks, my parents letting us play tapes in turn, and when it’s mine I naturally choose “Xanadu.”

Halfway through my dad says offhandedly, “You know that most of this is from a famous old poem, right?” I was torn between being amazed at his words, and that he’d been paying close enough attention to figure that out.

“No. Really?”

“Yeah. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Xanadu sometime in the 1800’s, I think. Legend has it that he dreamed about it when he was on some heavy painkiller – opium, I’m pretty sure – and someone came to his door and interrupted him before he could finish the dream and understand all that he’d seen and experienced. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back there and figure it out.”

‘Whoa,’ thought I. ‘This just gets cooler and cooler.’

Naturally I researched all I could find on the subject, which made me wonder if Mr. Peart had mined other such veins for use as Rush material. Guess what? He had.

The name of the space ship in “Cygnus X-1” from the A Farewell to Kings album? Also the name of Don Quixote’s horse.

The song “Anthem” and the entire first side of 2112? Based on the writings of Ayn Rand.

“Rivendell” from the Fly by Night album – I knew that source well.

So not only did I discover the band that would change my life, and shape much of it for the next decade or so, musically speaking, I’d accidentally uncovered one of the most literate lyricists in Rock.

For each of their next several albums I dove headlong into liner notes, album art, interviews and any other sources I could find. Uncovering all of these riddles, solving puzzles only I seemed interested in, added to the overall effect the music had on me. I also realized that most of my friends (a) weren’t as into the music as I was, preferring more straight ahead Rock and Roll, radio-friendly stuff (nothing wrong with that,) and (b) even the small minority that did appreciate the band weren’t as into all the minutiae that turned me on. I didn’t care.

I ended up writing my senior English paper on the band, chiefly around the Hemispheres album, with its Apollonian versus Dionysian dichotomy. Heady stuff for any Rock band to tackle, and that album definitely wasn’t for everyone; even more so than usual the trip they took us on there and then was much more rabbit hole than destination, but it was fun stuff nonetheless. (And a continuation of a song from the previous album – also cool.) I got a good grade on the paper, and a soft suggestion that maybe I’d relied too heavily on the words of others; there being so few citable sources on the band I’d had to fudge a bit a make a few of them up, including the accompanying article’s “quotes.” I’d never been prouder of being accused of using someone else’s writing.

Like no other source for me then or since, Rush opened and combined vistas that I would never have otherwise experienced in such a visceral, cerebral way. It was the summer of 2112, of All the World’s a Stage. Of Xanadu. And there were we, marveling at the first taste of honeydew, and so very drunk on the milk of paradise.

Thanks, guys, and Happy Canada Day! (And happy 4th to everyone else!)


A little longer than usual between posts, but lots of stuff happening on the work, family and living situations kept me away – not away from the beauteous sounds, which thankfully remain plentiful, but from the ability to rate and write about all of the best ones. That said and there being no shortage of good stuff to pass along, let’s get to it.

I’d heard of Admiral Fallow a few years ago, even follow them on Twitter, but until last month had never really downloaded and listened to them with the attention they deserve. What a waste of a few years. Like their countrymen (with whom I’m sure they’re tired of being lumped), Frightened Rabbit, Bell X1, and the many other beautifully lilting Scottish rockers that have crossed my transom in the recent past, their geography informs their message in almost every instance. I hear defiance even in the softest ballads, poetry in the simplest phrase, lines that would sound sung even if they were spoken instead, and I picture the North Sea, and Glaswegian streets, and earnest glances between beautiful faces, and honesty. Those are probably all just the Scottish stereotypes I’ve picked up over the years – likely as mashed as bangers with the Irish ones – (sorry, lads) but most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. I get a sense of the foreign nestled comfortably alongside the familiar. Rock is rock, no matter where it’s mined, and I like imagining that we’d have something in common in that appreciation, even with all the myriad differences that have made us what we are.

Long way of saying: check these guys out quickly. Their harmonies, their plaintive lyrics, their groove and their vibe all combine to leave you smiling, even if the subject matter may not be handled quite so deftly in other hands. Favorites from their latest, Tree Bursts in Snow, include the titular track – one of the examples of successfully painting a beautiful picture of a horrifying subject – warfare and explosions “all orange and Halloween red…” – the high energy of “The Paper Trench”, and the rousing pub sing-along of “Isn’t This World Enough??” [Pardon the ads on some of these video inserts – it’s getting harder and harder to find stuff without them…]

I wrote a few months back about seeing Jesca Hoop open for Punch Brothers, and how she totally enthralled many of the crowd (myself happily included) but left many spouting dismissive nonsense about her short and typically eclectic set. Still baffled by that, but was stoked to get both her new album and a new Daytrotter session from her on the same day. The House That Jack Built is at least as loopy and nonsensical as her last outing, charmingly so, and as full of the mescaline-esque  imagery and lyrical twists and turns that I’ve come to love and to expect from her. “Hospital” is cute and quirky, “Peacemaker” slow and deceptively dirty, “When I’m Asleep” imported from some mythical Middle Eastern harbor town (Qarth, maybe?) where local strictures become a relaxed pastiche of the many external cultural influences passing through.

Her Daytrotter session astounds, as well. I don’t know why she keeps surprising me – after multiple exposure to her unorthodox and impressive play with words and sounds it seems like that shouldn’t be the case. Shouldn’t be. Though short at four songs, each resonates. “Born To,” from the new one, shines.

At the other end of the awesomely different / differently awesome spectrum sits The Lion, the Beast and the Beat, the latest offering from the ever-touring Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Having seen them four times now – fifth show in October at the incredible Tabernacle downtown – and collected their tunes over the last few years, I’m not too surprised that each outing gets infused with a little more carefully crafted pop, a few less rough edges and a little more polish. Part of me totally understands and is happy that the relentless touring and the well-honed songcraft is resulting in ever larger audiences and greater success, but part of me misses the band I saw performing a drunken-seeming, acoustic-and-wine-bottle-and-ice-bucket rendition of my first favorite song (“Paris“). In concert they remain, without doubt and without comparison, one of the best true rock bands touring at that level; the sludgy weight of the guitars on the slow ones, the builds, the blistering speed on the quick ones, and yes, even the more pop influenced turns are all performed masterfully and with enough improv and stage antics to keep them from becoming, for me, completely radio friendly wannabes. The duet with Willie on an older GP&N song, “Ragged Company,” is a great pairing but left me wanting more from the parts that had them singing at the same time. There wasn’t really any harmony, but the individual verses carry the same sense of deprecation as the original, and Willie’s gravelly delivery matched the phrasing perfectly.

Her forays into the Country realm leave nobody doubting her ability to do so (witness the Grammy nom on her very first outing,) but at the same time I wonder, “Why?” I know she’s having fun, and making a good living (I hope), and no artist wants to stay the same – evolving is as much a part of the process for them as it is for us mere mortals – but it feels like she’s pulling away, just a bit, from some of the stuff I initially loved best about her and the amazing band of gypsies in her traveling family. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, as evidenced in my first listening to Lion: just when I was starting to sense that pulling away sensation, the title track came on. It’s so layered, almost progressively so, and any doubts I was nurturing were temporarily and successfully allayed. The song rocks. The band rocks. The woman rocks. Please keep it that way, Grace.

I’m Jonesing for some live Madi Diaz. Hearing her recent Daytrotter session both helps soothe that urge and makes it stronger. I’ve only seen her live once, at the excellent listening room environment of Eddie’s Attic here in Atlanta, and she was enthralling. She’s both playful and deadly earnest in her performances, and just FUN to see and hear. She has a great knack for choosing covers, too- as evidenced in this session, where she takes Paula’s “Straight Up” and turns it from frothy pop to a darker, more plaintive and painful cry that cuts to the quick. Brilliant. (The rest of the cuts are just as strong.)

I haven’t ever written about Rush here, I think, probably because once I got started I may never stop. They were the first band I totally immersed myself in. Sure, I cut my teeth on the likes of Kiss, Aerosmith and others, and kidded myself into thinking they were great, heavy rock, but hearing Rush’s live set on “All the World’s a Stage” with my cousins at the beach in Charleston, SC totally changed me. Without exaggeration, that was the first time that music sliced into the heart of me, grabbed my head in both of its metaphorical hands and screamed, “Hold still! And LISTEN TO THIS!!” Those songs, and the albums they led me to, seemed to be the perfect response to my parents and others who were saying, “Turn that down! It’s just a bunch of noise anyway!”

Because it was anything but noise.

Without launching into a repeat of my senior thesis (high school, anyway) which was all about Rush and its influences, both given and taken, suffice it to say that they were my first favorite band, and I read every liner note, every scarce interview (no Internets back then, friends and neighbors,) anything and everything I could get my hands on.

So when they came out with Snakes and Arrows last time around, and this new one – Clockwork Angels – each of which hearkened back to the Rush that first yanked me away from mediocrity – I felt exactly like I did on that beach in ’77 or so.

Clockwork Angels is nothing if not ambitious. Like 2112, the gateway album for so many fans (including this one,) it tells a complicated but ultimately simple story. Draped in the accoutrements of Steampunk, another favorite genre, Neil Peart – drummer and lyricist extraordinaire – partnered with noted SF writer Kevin Anderson on a novel with the same name. The album tells the story in parallel with the novel, apparently – I haven’t been able to get a copy of the book yet – and there are definite reminders of 2112 sprinkled throughout. Even the intricate album art, something they’ve never skimped on, takes me back to those heady early days and all of those albums that I spent so many hours listening to, headphones tight and volume maxed.

The songs rock, the music is big, almost thick enough to grab onto and ride. The story is sound, if familiar: young man, anxious to leave his mundane day-to-day existence behind, travels the world, falls in and out of love, all while coming to terms with the Watchmaker, who controls the whole world and all of its clockwork machinery (angels included.)

I can easily envision them playing these tunes live in a few months, in the same arena we’ve seen them in three other times now, no opening act, one 15-minute break in their 3+ hour set. They make deep, heavy, intricate rock as pounding and as stirring as ever, and they make it look effortless. Keep it up, guys – it’s still a lot of fun to listen to.

Ryan Monroe was an accidental find – a very happy one. Part of the Band of Horses, his new solo album, A Painting of a Painting on Fire, may be the single best display of multi-genre expertise I’ve ever heard. So much so that all thought of genre – “What is this one? Funk? But that last one was 70’s California Country, wasn’t it?” – go happily out the window.

I heard “Turning Over Leaves” first, thanks to Paste’s awesome mPlayer, and couldn’t figure out why I liked it. It had everything I usually actively dislike in my rock and roll: a funky drum beat, a weird but infectious jazzy bass line, super deep Barry White-ish verses followed by a falsetto chorus. And I love it. It’s one of the only 5-star songs on my iPod at the moment, and was easily enough to make me want more.

There not another song like it on the whole album.

In the rest of those songs I hear James Gang-era Joe Walsh (and who else is channeling that awesome sound these days?), the 70’s CA sound referenced earlier, ELO (what?!), prog rock, and other majestic, multi-instrument, multi-layered Rock with a capital R. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake, nor do I ever get the feeling that he’s simply showing off his considerable musical prowess. I DO get the feeling that, when putting together a collection of his own songs, he played what he’d written, unrestricted by the pigeon hole people may put him in, and then had a blast laying them down. At least it sounds that way. Current favorite is “The Darkness Will Be Gone.”

Best, funnest all-the-way-through album I’ve heard in years. Even got a Twitter reply from him when I tweeted my fanboy pleasure after the first listen; asked him to please come to Atlanta or its nearby environs, and he basically said, “Hope so!”

I hope so, too.

In the meantime, I plan on catching him with his day job as they begin the steel breeze that is the Railroad Revival Tour, mark II. The last one featured Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and others as they traveled in 1940’s rail cars from California to NOLA, playing all along the way both on and off the train. This year’s crew included Band of Horses, Willie Nelson & Family, John Reilly’s band (yes, that John Reilly) and more, and they start the trip about 10 miles from my current location. Think I’m missing that? Not a chance.

That’s all for now – keep in touch and let me know what’s tickling your eardrums these days.


Cover songs are strange beasts. Songs that affect not only the average listener but another artist enough so that they feel compelled to put their own spin on the tune can sometimes win new fans, alienate existing ones, or pass indifferently into the aether.

I don’t appreciate the note-for-note remakes nearly as much as the ones that put a truly personalized stamp on the work. I think those NfN-ers do provide some insight into the covering artists’ tastes and susceptibilities, but the ones that really get to me are the ones that are notably different in some way from the original.

Some of my closest friends who are also serious music aficionados aren’t as moved by such redos, as I’m sure is the case with many. Why listen to another version of a song they’ve already heard?

I like them specifically because they’re other versions of songs I know and love.

So what are some of the best examples? I can think of a few off the top of my head.

The song in my library that’s been covered the most is without question Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” (I have a voluminous playlist of only Dylan covers, which we’ll get to in a minute.)

Which version is the best? They all are, precisely because they’re all different.

That song, in fact most if not all of Bob’s canon, is sturdy, pliable, resilient- like all great songs, no matter the period or genre. That’s one of the reasons that so many Beatles’ (and former Beatles’) songs have received similar treatment. (More on those topics later, too.)

Whether it’s Michael Hedges’ blistering, polymanual acoustic version, the probably best-known Jimi Hendrix pass – such a signature for him that many incorrectly believe the song to be his – or Neil Young’s fuzzy paean from the early 80′ Bobfest concert, none of the song’s tension, mysticism or sense of menace lying just over the horizon is lost, only filtered through different voices, different instruments, different palettes and different minds.

Brief aside: if it weren’t for the many Dylan covers out there, I’m almost sure I would not have the same appreciation for his work, simply because of his singing voice. Let’s be honest, even in his prime it was nothing grand or dramatic (which, granted, provided a great contrast to the grandeur of the words themselves, and gave countless Bohemians and Beatniks the courage to get up and do their own stuff, too, reasoning that, “I don’t think my singing could sound much worse than that…”)

Edie Brickell’s “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Indigo Girls’ “Tangled Up in Blue,” and (again) Neil Young’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with its backdrop of air strikes and machine guns from Gulf War I, are as poetic and haunting and powerful as when they were first sung in coffeehouses and bus stations almost 25 years before these new versions were recorded.

Everyone’s probably heard more covers of Beatles tunes than from any other artist. Some are sublime, some merely tolerable, many not so much of either, acting as Muzak in the interminable elevator ride to the dentist’s office. There have been some good ones, though: Seether’s fairly recent take on “Across the Universe,” Corrine Bailey Rae’s “Blackbird” with Herbie Hancock on keys (live from the White House, no less,) Aerosmith’s “Come Together” from the dreadful Bee Gees vehicle/movie (and Joe Cocker’s version of the same song from the much better “Across the Universe” film,) and Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” all fall into the successful reinterpretation camp, for me. Tina Dico’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a must-hear, too.

There have been some really interesting, and really great, covers of songs from the post-Beatles era, too. Girlyman’s “My Sweet Lord,” with its otherworldly harmonies and simple guitar line loses none of the earnestness of Harrison’s original; Young’s “Imagine” from one of the many 9/11 tribute shows (I didn’t realize until writing this how many varied covers Neil Young has provided…) is surprisingly touching coming from that particular throat; and Dave Grohl’s “Band on the Run” from the same White House gig that saw Rae’s “Blackbird,” and Elvis Costello’s “Penny Lane” from the same room, for that matter, are all excellent examples of artists being energized and transformed by the original material, yet still able to leave their own signatures.

For years one of my favorite bands hardly ever got covered, and I think there was a reason: nobody at the time could match the strength, depth, or intensity of the best Led Zeppelin songs. Within the past few years, tho, several have tried and more than a few have succeeded.

The first time I heard Tool’s “No Quarter” I had to pull off the road and turn it up. (That’s only happened one other time that I remember, and the source for that one is too embarrassing to reveal here…) There were practically tears in my eyes as the dark dirge unfolded, the same deep but never explained foreshadowing perfectly mirrored in the beyond-heavy underpainting of the music, the arrangement that began familiarly enough but which slowly unspun as the song played out, Maynard’s muffing of the key lyrics – I think unintentionally – which somehow keep intact the gist of the futility of trying to defend against a never-named, mystical and mysterious foe, and of how little the ones who stand and wait can do when they “know they won’t be home tonight.” From the crushing guitars to Danny Carey’s monstrous, mammoth drumming, this easily comes the closest to capturing the original intent of the song while still leaving an indelible Tool stamp behind.

Corrine Bailey Rae (again) offers a beautifully jazzy reworking of “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” one of the most moving bluesy tracks Zep ever tackled. Lacking only the waterfalling cascade of Page’s incredible solo, Corrine easily captures the pain, worry and doubt of the lover left behind, and choosing that cover for her first full-length album was probably the single biggest reason I began digging more deeply into her canon, and why I follow her to this day. Plant’s screams of frustration and pain are transformed into understated, almost whispery resignation, with no loss of emotion in that translation. She exhibits that emotional range live as well or better than on her recordings, and that’s coming from someone who’s never been and probably never will be a fan of any sort of Jazz.

Rodrigo y Gabriela’s acoustic and quasi-flamenco version of “Stairway” deserves a mention, too. It’s probably the only cover of that song that doesn’t seem like a parody to me.

One of the only covers that seems to improve on Zeppelin’s original is not really a cover at all. Page and Plant’s reworking of “Kashmir” from the Unledded gig in the early 80’s provides an arrangement that I’ve always thought Page would have orchestrated if he’d had the resources at the time of Physical Graffiti’s original sessions. The many Middle Eastern percussive and stringed instruments played by their local experts onstage with P&P, and Page’s reworking of some of the key middle sections, make this a completely different and in my opinion better version than the original. That would likely not be the case if it hadn’t been done by Jimmy and Robert, and probably would have been even better if they hadn’t lost John Paul Jones’ phone number, as he claimed a few years later.

Zeppelin covers got the ultimate redux within the last few years with Jealous Butcher Records’ lovingly produced package of relatively unknown PNW bands playing nothing but their favorite Zep tunes on three discs. “From the Land of the Ice and Snow” is fairly uneven at points, and has weird takes, note-for-note modernizations, and several truly inspired revisions among its many cuts. The album package itself is a gem, too, with the discs themselves reminiscent of the old red, black and green Atlantic vinyl encased in a modern homage to the previously mentioned Physical Graffiti.

Standouts on that one include “Over the Hills and Far Away” redone as a bluegrass number by The Mighty Ghosts of Heaven; DCFC’s Chris Walla doing “In the Light;” “The Ocean” as interpreted by Laura Veirs; M. Ward playing an achingly beautiful and even softer version of the instrumental Bron-y-aur; and a deliciously twisted, Boho-bongo “Dancing Days” by the equally strange-named Miss Murgatroyd & the Queens of Heart. Each of these remakes is different enough – in most cases very, very different – that they bring a completely new but not irreverent impression to the old favorite or the previously obscure. A few of the others on this collection are very honest to the original – too much so, for my tastes. Antlerand’s “Rain Song,” for example, while showcasing the band’s prowess and love for the song, preserves every nuance from Zeppelin’s version, and as such it gets much less of my attention.

Another key function of the cover song is to expose newer generations or fans of other genres to different artists and styles. I know that I have never and likely will never appreciate Patti Smith’s oeuvre, regardless of the plenitude of artists I respect and admire who tout how seminal and forward-thinking her work was, and how it’s informed their work. (Sorry, Mr. Stipe.) But when I heard Allison Moorer’s “Dancing Barefoot,” a song I’d never even heard at all, I gained a modicum of respect for Ms. Smith. (Though admittedly it did not make me rush out and sample her backlog; I still think I’ve heard enough to know all I need to know in that department.)

Michael Jackson is another example. Whether you like his stuff or not, and I do not, he was the King of Pop and knew how to craft a hooky, dancy, pop song. Hearing some of those songs reinterpreted in such a way that the words can be sung (to me) in a more relatable, heartfelt way has definitely made me appreciate the unnoticed subtleties and deft touch that he had with his songwriting. Snowblink’s “Human Nature,” recorded in their Daytrotter session last year, reveals a beautiful vulnerability even before the spoken overlaid outro with Jackson lambasting someone for calling him ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Hearing (and seeing) “Billie Jean” performed live in a small listening room in the Civil Wars’ inimitably spare and pristine style makes it practically ache and throb, which, granted, the Civil Wars can do with almost any song, theirs or others’. Likewise, Nickel Creek’s live rendering of “I Want You Back,” (also done with heart-wrenching effectiveness by the CW’s,) has much the same effect: it’s an old song, but a good one, and one I would probably never have listened to again if they hadn’t taken it out for a spin.

Some of my other favorite bands are almost never covered, either because the music is too complex, too dated, or not repeatable even in a modern setting. Rush falls into this category for me. Some of their material seems ripe to be remade, (“Closer to the Heart” would seem to be a perfect vehicle for any of the chanteuses making the rounds in the Indie-folk world today,) but the only two I am aware of are Billy Corgan’s reading of “Limelight,” brilliant lyrically like all of their stuff, and Audioslave (much and unfairly maligned they may be,) doing a passable version of “Working Man.”

Live covers hold a special place for me, as they seem to give us a glimpse into the thinking and layered musical development of the people and bands we came to see, even more so than when the covers get recorded. There are many artists I see fairly regularly where part of the anticipation of the shows is wondering which one or two covers they might pull out.

At a recent Aaron Lewis solo acoustic show, for instance, he half-jokingly broke into Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” I’ll say it again in case you missed it: at a SOLO show, playing only an ACOUSTIC guitar, Staind’s front man played 3/4 of “War Pigs” before laughingly crashing to a sloppy halt. He shouldn’t have stopped – it was one of the highlights of a show that included several decent cover songs. (That opinion may be tempered by the fact that the show was heavily Countrified, from the venue and the crowd to the setlist. The highlights were few and far between, but they were definitely high.)

The Infamous Stringdusters debuted a bluegrass version of U2’s “In God’s Country” that sounded so good in that format that I wondered why nobody had ever done it that way before.

As mentioned before, The Civil Wars always choose excellent, unexpected songs to cover in their shows. I’ve seen them three times in the last 12 months and they’ve never played fewer than two per show, from Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” (also available on their recent Daytrotter set,) to the two Jackson classics, to a haunting “You Are My Sunshine,” to Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.”

I could go on for pages. At latest count, there are about 100 covers rated 4 or 5 stars in my library, and over 400 covers in total, around 20 of which are Dylan songs – including six takes on “Watchtower.” (For those keeping score at home these are by Dave Matthews, Hendrix, U2, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Hedges and Neil Young.)

Finally, special mention but woefully small descriptions go to the following favorites:

Lyle Lovett, “Friend of the Devil,” slow and tasty
Michael Hedges, “Pinball Wizard”
Sara Bareilles, “In Your Eyes”
Willie Nelson, “Gravedigger” (extra points for recording it on his 80th birthday with DMB)
Greg Laswell, “Your Ghost”
Marie Digby, “What I’ve Done” (who knew Linkin Park’s crunching guitars from this powerful tune would translate so well to a siren singing softly on her piano?)
Eddie Vedder, “My City of Ruins” live from Lincoln Center, “More Than You Know” and others from his most recent album
Missy Higgins & Brett Dennen, “Breakdown”
Andrew Belle, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” (complete with phone ringing in the middle)
Dave Grohl & Norah Jones, “Maybe I’m Amazed” from the Kennedy Center Honors
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, “Paint It, Black'” “White Rabbit,” and many, many more greats
Damien Rice and Angus & Julia Stone, “You’re the One That I Want”

Love them or hate them cover songs will always be around, and fans will always be there to weigh in on them. Over and over and over again.

What are some of your favorite covers? What do you like most (or least) about them? Let me know!