Necessary Covers: The Death of Music and the Eulogy that Follows
Usually people consider cover songs as inferior to the original, but there are plenty of examples where the opposite is true. For me the clearest example of this is the Jimi Hendrix version of Hey Joe which make the original unlistenable. Many people would argue that Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower is better than Dylan's. Almost everyone agrees the Johnny Cash version of Hurt is superior to Nine Inch Nails, and that includes Trent Reznor. That's not exactly fair since Cash basically schooled everyone when he covered a song. I would also argue that Nina's Simone's version of Strange Fruit is better than Billie Holiday's, and I'd also say that Simone did a better job with Sugar in my Bowl than Bessie Smith. So I want to see what other songs have that potential.
The Grammy's are playing in the background over my objections, but this brought up a topic I have been thinking about for quite sometime. See this year, after 2016 being the year musicians (and famous people generally) were felled in record numbers, many of the live performances were tribute covers. At an award show there is bound to be an immense pressure to draw viewers in by using big name performers to perform tributes, but that isn't always the best choice musically. For the sake of this series I am only looking at what I consider the best artistic choice.
Now Adele was on point with her tribute to George Michael even with the false start. The tribute to Phife Dawg could not have happened any other way. That can't be said of the rest of the rest of the tributes. The Bee Gees medley was particularly anemic. I didn't even know who most of those performers were, but I know it was a salad of mediocrity. First, a single song should have been selected. After the unwelcome crash course I gave myself, my candidate would be Jive Talkin'. Now that that is settled, who is the best person or group to cover this song. If you want to have it be a contemporary, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder are still around, but their voices are kind of shot at this point. So perhaps it's better to choose a younger artist. Alicia Keys could certainly have done it. That's too easy though. Why not give someone with a lower profile some exposure? It also takes away some of the pressure to cleave to closely to the original, and instead make the song their own. So I'm going to recommend PHOX,
except that none of the Bee Gees died this year, like the tribute suggest. Maurice died a couple years after the new millennium. Robin died in 2012, and Barry is still around. What was this about?
Oh well, let's move on to one of the most traumatic musical deaths of 2016: Prince. Let's have a moment of silence for him, and the remainder of your sex life. [..................] We good? K, so the tribute was performed by Bruno Mars, Morris Day and The Time ... and it was okay. It was a competent performance, and a reasonable facsimile of Prince' music. I get the appeal of having Day and The Time be a part of the tribute to Prince, but it's almost like they are too close, and other than their height Bruno Mars is clearly an understudy. They'd have been better off adapting a song to a new style. They had someone there who could have done it too. I'm not a fan, but listen to John Legend leading in the In Memoriam, and picture him doing a spare slowed down version of When Doves Cry. Or The Weeknd doing Raspberry Beret with Daft Punk backing him. Either would work.
Speaking of the In Memoriam, there was another of the musicians neglected. I can imagine that Leonard Cohen being uninterested in such treatment, but that there was no tribute to him is a travesty. I don't even like him as a performer, but there is no denying his gifts as a song writer. He is right at the top of my list of musicians, along with Bruce Springsteen, who I can do without as performers but write songs that other musicians absolutely SLAY with. Hallelujah has been driven into the ground, and Cohen agreed. With Jeff Buckley already being dead himself, it was not happening anyway, but if there was no way around it Leon Bridges would excel at this song.
Both he and this song are only a half step removed from gospel. He is also a new hot property. Now if you prefer a contemporary of Cohen, there is Tom Waits, but he isn't my first choice either. Who would play the tribute then and with what song? I don't think he'd be caught dead at the Grammy's, but for me there is only one choice: Nick Cave. He has already shown that he can own a Cohen song ... in fact he's done it twice.
Merle Haggard ... This was a politicized show this year, and Haggard's staunch patriotism could be viewed as tacit support for a divisive contemporary figure. This is a bit unfair as his less popular songs show a more complex view. Sympathy for interracial relationships and a critical look at economic injustice are also present, and that lead to a good candidate:
Sharon Jones, while I am genuinely pleased she got a tribute, I was nevertheless surprised by this. I also was not pleased with how it was executed. That Ms. Jones backing band, The Dap Kings, were involved was the right decision. Having Sturgill Simpson as the primary performer was weird weird weird. I am not knocking Simpson as a musician, it just wasn't the right fit. Yes you expect a performer to put his own spin on a song, but for a tribute it shouldn't be made unrecognizable. Sharon Jones was a forceful soul singer, and Simpson turns her work into lugubrious country piece. His playing style is twangy, his voice is almost twangy yet open throated baritone at the same time. You have to shout Sharon Jones, but Simpson flattens it out. It is an odd song choice, or at least Simpson makes it odd. You can go wistful, or celebratory, but I have not idea which was intended here. The perfect song would be If You Call.
If the idea is to imply unity among musicians to have songs performed by those of different genres, you can keep it with country, but someone with a bit more growl is needed. Lucero could have worked here as well. If you need someone with a higher profile why not Chris Stapleton? He was there already. Of course like Prince, you could have someone similar to the musician pay tribute to. Allow me to suggest Charles Bradley. If you want some one younger, there is always The Black Keys. But why be more ambitious? Let me introduce you to multi-genre multi-instrumental polyglot sorceress Rokia Traore. In that first link she sings in three languages in a single song (Bambara, French, and English). She can be intimate with her singing, or belt it out. Traore (no relation to Boubacar) is the daughter of a diplomat and moving from one international post exposed her to a variety of influences and allowed her weave traditional Malian styles and languages with those of the west. So she can certainly handle the material as her halting version of the jazz standard Strange Fruit indicates.
There were of course other musicians that met their end this year and didn't get a tribute. Greg Lake and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Leon Russell, Glenn Frey, the drummer from Megadeath, and ... some other guys. I don't take issue with that since even if you like their music, it's hard to argue that many of them have the cross generational appeal. Some of them also suffer from the fact that they also were part of larger groups but were not the driving creative force. There is one big omission but I am saving that for last.