I like cover songs.
When an original band inserts a cover into its set — as a salute to a band or artist that the performer admires — it’s typically pretty cool.
When Against Me! played a punk version of The Replacements’ “Androgynous,” I loved it. The band’s singer, Laura Jane Grace, is transsexual, and the song was a wink to her status and a nod to one of her favorite bands. It was clever and it was cool.
When a country band plays “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash it’s not clever. It’s not cool. It’s pandering, and it’s extremely annoying.
Before you call me the concert curmudgeon, hear me out. I go to a lot of concerts, so I tend to notice little things, whether it’s how a guy tunes his guitar or how different bands handle encores.
Lately, cover songs have been driving me nuts. A lot of bands play the songs to say “look how cool/clever/rooted in (insert genre here) we are for knowing this song.” I see what they’re trying to do, but artists tend to pick from a list of the same country and classic rock hits.
It’s so goofy. It’s the definition of derivative when a band plays “Brown Eyed Girl,” probably one of the most popular covers I’ve heard. Other artists repeatedly covered include Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Alabama, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.
Why is it so annoying? Audiences love it when a band they like plays a familiar song, but the band is pandering by playing something so rote. Many of these bands mask their ability to play good original music by playing bland versions of songs that fans already know. If you’re a band that has to fill a chunk of your set with other people’s hits, you need to concentrate harder on your own material — especially if the audience likes the covers more than your originals.
For the record, I’m not talking about cover bands. They are their own thing and basically a live jukebox. Play on, cover groups. Do your thing.
In case you think I’m ripping pop and country artists or giving indie rockers a free pass, I’m not. It’s equally annoying no matter who plays “Free Fallin’.”
Last year, every artist seemed to do a cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” It’s a good song from what was once an obscure artist, so it seemed hip.
This year, all kinds of artists do covers of fun.’s “We Are Young.” Why? Same as above: it’s a good song from a band that was sort of obscure, but is now popular. It screams “look how cool we are,” but your band isn’t cool if you’re playing the same cover as everyone else.
In recent months, I’ve seen bands play these covers and they were pretty awesome:
· “Tik Tok” (Ke$ha) and “Purple Rain” (Prince) performed by Brad Hoshaw — These songs are so far out of Hoshaw’s typical genre, so he presents them in a completely new way.
· “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right To Party!” (Beastie Boys) performed by Deer Tick — The Beasties’ Adam Yauch had recently passed away and Deer Tick likes to party, so it was fitting.
· “Born This Way” (Lady Gaga) performed by Little Big Town — They countrified the song to make it completely new. Plus I think it took courage to play a song that defends everyone “no matter gay, straight or bi” and those living a “lesbian, transgendered life” to a country audience.
Some suggestions for anyone who’s a musician and has actually read this far:
· Start with a musician or song that means something to you. Try to avoid the most popular stuff.
· If you do pick someone popular, try not to play the artist’s biggest hit. For example, if you love Johnny Cash, try “Life’s Railway to Heaven” instead of “Ring of Fire.” (Also, if you say you’re a huge Johnny Cash fan, but can’t name more than five of his songs, stop saying you’re such a big fan.)
· If you pick a popular song, differentiating it from the original can make all the difference. It’s what makes Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” one of the best covers ever. (The original is by Bob Dylan if you didn’t know.)