Saturday, January 28, 2012

Standards: Free Bird

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Free Bird


I have thousands upon thousands of cover songs in my collection, comprising hundreds upon hundreds of takes on scores and scores of songs generally considered standards, from all genres and source types - Tin Pan Alley, Childe Ballads, Appalachian songs, American Jazz, the Christian hymnal, overcovered country, bluegrass, motown, pop, folk and rock and roll classics, and more. I mean, isn't pretty much every Dylan and Beatles song a standard by now? Do I really want to post yet another favorite version of bluegrass classic Rain and Snow? Heck, I just spent the afternoon compiling 18 of my favorite covers of Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You for an in-depth exploration of divergent coverage over at Cover Lay Down, and I'm not even convinced that THAT song should be considered a standard, given how often my concert-going guests fail to recognize it as a cover when they hear it alongside me.

Which is to say: the challenge of being the resident coverblogger when this sort of theme comes up is that I get completely overwhelmed: after years of deep pursuit and collection, I know too much to approach this topic any way but sideways. But I couldn't let this week go by without posting something. And so I spent the week thinking, and rejecting dozens of ways to take on our theme sincerely. And, in the end, I decided to come in at the eleventh hour to post a goddamn ORIGINAL - in part because, as it turned out, to both my initial surprise and, upon further thought, my sincere acceptance and relief, I had not a single cover of the song in my collection at all.

In fact, I even had to go out and track down the original track just to bring it to the table. And then I actually listened to it, all the way through.

And you know what? It turns out Free Bird is a really great song.

This song - which fittingly first found release as the final track of Lynyrd Skynyrd's debut album - is hardly ever covered in the studio, giving it but a dubious claim to the status of "classic song" or standard as typically defined here this week. But thanks to the long-running cultural meme of yelling out its name at concerts, despite the Wall Street Journal's assertion that most artists hate the song and never play it, I'd argue that this song is both a) the most heard song title of all time, and b) almost definitely the most covered song in live performance ever, even if many of those covers are but fragments played to tease and acknowledge the joke before moving on.

Oh, sure, Yesterday is famously the most covered song in the history of recorded music. I'm sure you all know a couple of verses of Blowing In The Wind, too, and hear it in a totally different voice than the one that echoes in my head. But if you're a regular concertgoer, I bet you've heard the first few bars of Free Bird played and sung in concert more than any Beatles or Dylan song, bar none. And I'll bet you can sing along, too - for the first four lines or so, anyway. I bet you know all the air guitar moves for it, too.

And if that doesn't make it a standard, I'll eat my 1-terabyte external hard drive.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Standards: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Merry Clayton: Bridge Over Troubled Water


Despite recording six studio albums of her own (the first four of which are very much worth owning), and working with both Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd (which I find amusing considering their Southern Man/Sweet Home Alabama rivalry), Merry Clayton is still best known for providing the soaring vocals on The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter.

Perhaps less known is that in 1970 she released her very own version on her debut album, also entitled Gimme Shelter. The best track on it however, in my humble little opinion, is her rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water, originally by you-know-who.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Standards: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

Richard Thompson: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

[purchase a different live version]

In June, 2000, my family went to London. As it turned out, Richard Thompson was playing in Croydon, not too far away, and we got tickets. My wife and I were big fans, and my kids, who were 10 and nearly 7, also loved his music. WFUV, currently my favorite radio station, plays him often, and he regularly appeared at the Tarrytown Music Hall, just down the road from our house, and his shows were a family outing. If you are a fan, you know this song, probably the one song that Thompson has to play every night to avoid rioting. It is a modern ballad, in the style of an old English ballad, about the love of a boy (James) for a girl (Red Molly) and a motorcycle (the Vincent). To me, it is also a perfect short story. In only a few minutes and verses, Thompson immerses you in the setting, fills out the characters and tells his story. I’m an American professional who has never ridden a motorcycle, yet Thompson’s artistry makes me feel what it is like to be an English criminal and understand why he loves both the woman and the bike. And when he plays the song live, his guitar playing is always mind blowing.

The concert at Croydon was an excellent show. It is remembered particularly in my family for three reasons. First, the opening act, a singer/songwriter, was awful. I won’t name her here, but if you want to know, I’m sure you can find it on the Internet somewhere. Second, early in the set, Thompson broke a string, and was able to change it himself while playing and singing “Twist and Shout.” Finally, there was this version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” with two added verses, which are rarely performed. In his pre-song banter, Thompson says that they are “more for the enthusiast.” (Unfortunately, the banter is attached to the end of the prior track, so I am not including it here).

One of the extra verses, which becomes the second verse, describes the history of the Vincent Black Lightning, and how it broke the land speed record, This is why, James explains, he had to have one of his own. In the standard version, after James is shot during a robbery and is dying, he hands the keys to the Vincent to Molly, gives her one last kiss, and dies. The narrator concludes, “He gave her his Vincent to ride.” But the additional verse goes on to describe how Molly stole James’ body from the hospital, had him cremated, his ashes contained in the Vincent’s fuel tank and buried at the side of the road. In this version, the narrator concludes, “And even the hard men cried, And forever on his Vincent he rides.”

Is the song better with the two verses? Presumably, Thompson, the writer, doesn’t think so, or he would have recorded the song with them, or at least perform the song live with them on a regular basis, and he doesn’t. I have to agree. But I’m glad I was able to hear them.

Standards: Summertime

Brainbox: Summertime


Perhaps you were expecting Ms. Joplin? Don't be so disappointed. This version of the "Porgy And Bess" classic is performed by a Dutch prog rock group led by pre-Focus guitar god Jan Akkerman and a histrionic vocalist named Kaz Lux. The year is 1969. "Subtlety" did not sell records. And let's face it, when Kaz hits that falsetto "SkkkkyyyYY!" 80 seconds in, you're hooked.

Standards: Wayfaring Stranger(s)

Maria McKee: Wayfarin' Stranger


Jerry Reed: Wayfaring Stranger


"Wayfaring Stranger" is a standard in the folk music catalog, dating back to the 19th century. A religious ballad, it gained new meaning during the 1930s, with lyrics seemingly reflecting the plight of the displaced and homeless -- poor wayfaring strangers, "traveling through this world of woe." In the 1940s, it became a signature tune for Burl Ives, who named both his autobiography and radio program after it.

"Wayfaring Stranger" remains an oft-recorded song -- an iTunes search brings up more than 400 matches. Here are two distinctly interpretations.

The first is strictly traditional, performed by Maria McKee on the Songcatcher soundtrack album. It is one of McKee's finest vocal performances, in a recording career full of them.

The second is by Jerry Reed. Thanks to his novelty records and good-ol'-boy persona honed in movies like Smokey and the Bandit and The Waterboy, Reed's many fine records of the 1960s and early '70s have sadly been forgotten. Among the most interesting is 1967's Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country, on which he reworks a dozen folk and pop classics. Reed's "Wayfaring Stranger" starts with his signature acoustic guitar picking. Soon, a Hammond organ joins in, and Reed's playing gets jazzy, and he even offers up some scat singing. His unique take is a reminder that standards can not only be honored, but reinterpreted as well.

Standards: Minnie the Moocher

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: Minnie the Moocher


Minnie the Moocher is the timeless tale of a good girl gone bad, prohibition style. The song was written by Cab Calloway, who first recorded it in 1932. Calloway was a great showman. His dance moves look impossible even now, and may have inspired James Brown. Minnie the Moocher has the famous hi-de-hi-de-hi call and response between Calloway and his band. He used to get his audiences to sing the responses, and then Calloway would sing more and more complicated strings of nonsense syllables, until the audience could follow him no longer. All in good fun, of course. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was part of the swing revival movement that broke out in the mid 1990s. Unlike many of their peers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performed mostly original songs. Obviously, Minnie the Moocher was an exception, but, heard along side their originals, it served to validate just how good at writing these kinds of songs the band was.

As a bonus, I thought I would share something fun that I came across while researching this post: the Betty Boop cartoon Minnie the Moocher. The song comes in about half way through the cartoon, and the version you hear is by Cab Calloway and his band. The dance moves of the walrus-like ghost were taken from a rotoscope of Calloway’s stage moves.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Standards: My One and Only Love

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman: My One and Only Love


So, what is a ‘standard’ anyway? The temptation is to see the term as defining that special type of popular song that has, through no real fault of its own, managed to move beyond mere ubiquity into the realms of cliché. Ask a cross-section of people to name a standard and the songs mentioned would be telling – My Way, perhaps, or Unforgettable. My Baby Just Cares For Me. That type of thing.

The only trouble there, of course, is that these songs aren’t standards. We equate them with a particular artist, but would be hard pressed to name a version of the song recorded by anyone other than that person. To an extent, they become cabaret fodder, or the purview of lazy impressionists in need of some kind of shorthand with which to telegraph to an equally lazy audience who it is they are trying to pastiche.

My One and Only Love, on the other hand, is a true standard having been recorded by a huge number of artists despite never exactly achieving the type of fame that can so effectively rob a song of all its power. This version comes from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s self-titled 1963 masterpiece, and words can’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that if you are unfamiliar with Hartman this recording will make you wonder how it’s possible that a singer of such warmth and emotional range could possibly be so comparatively little-known. As for Trane – well, the avant-garde’s gain was certainly lyrical jazz’s loss: this was the only vocal album he would ever record as band leader, and that seems a damn shame.

Guest post by Houman

Standards: Lovesong

Jack Off Jill: Lovesong


Since its 1989 release via Disintigration, The Cure’s “Lovesong” (often titled “Love Song,” to the general apathy of its copyright owner) has been the object of dozens of published covers and countless live renditions by a mélange of artists representing all manner of genre. Its straightforward lyrics and their accessible expression of emotion guaranteed the song plenty of publicity and airtime, and its hooky, downbeat guitar and bass riffs laid over an anxious drumbeat and haunting, typically Goth-rock synthesizer chorus all proved not only catchy and memorable, but also easily replicable to even the amateur musician.

Though certainly not alone in exploiting the aggressive potential latent in “Lovesong,” now-defunct Floridian band Jack Off Jill bring the song’s energy to the forefront of the presentation. Vocalist Jessicka implies a world of meaning that Robert Smith, whether intentionally or not, left missing from his tremulous, downtrodden vocalisations. Beginning the song in breathy seriousness, she sets a tone of intimate address that increases in intensity as the timbre of her voice clears and rises throughout the verses. In true ejaculatory fashion, Jessicka’s grungy vocals erupt into a scream that highlights for the listener the energy and passion that Smith’s version ignored in its representation of devoted love.

Jack Off Jill’s version of “Lovesong” appears as track 66 (tracks 15-65 are each comprised of six seconds of silence, a digital trick used by artists who wish to argue that something something tracks aren’t songs something something, as on Korn’s 1998 release Follow the Leader) on Clear Hearts Grey Flowers, the 2000 album immediately preceding their breakup. Many other artists have performed noteworthy versions of this standard—particularly memorable is the smoky, punky, overdriven anthem delivered by The Deluxetone Rockets on 2008’s Green Room Bluesbut Jack Off Jill’s carefully delivered sounds create what is, to me, the most moving adaptation.

Guest post by Andrew

Standards: Fools Rush In

Bow Wow Wow: Fools Rush In


14 year old Burmese Londoner Annabella Lwin had been working in a dry cleaners when punk impressario Malcom McLaren recruited her and  three members of Adam and The Ants to form the Burundi drummers-inspired  Bow Wow Wow. Two years before their cover of the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy" hit the UK Top Ten , they released a poppy cover of this forty year old Johnny Mercer/ Rube Bloom standard, originally sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ray Eberle and Billy Eckstine.

While Annabella sings like a breathless, flirty 14 year old,  the real triumph belongs to bassist Leigh Gorman, who frantically riffs through the entire two minutes. "Fools Rush In" appears on the second disc of the 2006 Marie Antoinette soundtrack.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Standards: Knockin' on Heaven's Door

Warren Zevon: Knockin' on Heaven's Door


There are dozens of songs penned by Bob Dylan that can be considered standards, but to me no other Dylan song has the "universal appeal" or an all-encompassing feeling quite like "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." The song is originally from the 1973 soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and describes that thoughts and feeling of a dying deputy. From what I can tell, it's been covered by over 400 different artists ranging from hard rockers Guns N' Roses to Canadian pop princess Avril Lavigne, to reggae, country, soul, hip-hop, and R&B interpretations.

"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is ultimately about facing one's own mortality. Warren Zevon was acutely aware that his life was ending when he recorded his 2003 swan song The Wind. In August of 2002 Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer of the abdominal wall and lungs, and was given months to live. Despite the concerns of his friends and collaborators, Zevon included "Kockin' on Heaven's Door" on The Wind, in addition to original songs that reference the triumphs and failures of his 56 years. His version is very close to Dylan's original recording, with a tired but heartfelt voice scratching out the lyrics while a solitary electric guitar, played by Brad Davis, grinds out a counter melody. Throughout the repeating chorus at the end of the song you can hear Zevon sing "Open up, open up for me," as if Zevon is saying "it's your last chance to tell me what you need to tell me." The Wind was released on August 26, and Zevon passed away on September 7, 2003.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Standards: Blue Skies

Special Consensus: Blue Skies


If it’s a cloudy, gray day and you’re feeling down, then find a happy, upbeat version of “Blue Skies” to get yourself smiling again. At least that’s what we do out here in rainy Oregon. After being written in 1926 by Irving Berlin for the Rodgers and Hart musical, Betsy, the song became an immediate hit. One unique rendition is a bluegrass instrumental arrangement by the award-winning Special Consensus band. Besides traditional and contemporary offerings, they’re a band that specifically looks for songs from other genres to ‘grass up. They might find something with Celtic flavorings, or they might take a liking to an old classic country number. In this case, Special Consensus took the popular classic jazz standard and turned it into a signature tune for their band.

Together since 1975, Special Consensus knows what works and doesn't. Their main ingredient is driving banjo-centric material that allows Greg Cahill to demonstrate his flexibility, creativity and eclecticism with the others band members’ solid instrumental prowess. From Chicago, Cahill is highly respected by his bluegrass peers as a consensus builder, and he has served as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s President and Board Chairman.

On their 2007 album release with this track, the band was rounded out with Ron Spears (mandolin), Justin Carbone (guitar) and David Thomas (bass). “The Trail of Aching Hearts” album also featured some key guests to embellish their sound -- Tim Crouch (fiddle), Rob Ickes and Phil Leadbetter (Dobro), Tres Nugent and Tim Dishman (bass). It’s Dishman who actually got the nod for the grooving bass break in “Blue Skies.”

Special Consensus is a bluegrass band with a long track record of success. Their aptitude and diversity displayed with a jazz classic like “Blue Skies” will give you a small taste as to why they garner so much notoriety and fame.

Guest Post by Joe Ross

Standards: A Whiter Shade Of Pale

King Curtis: A Whiter Shade Of Pale


I remember the wonder I experienced when I first heard “A White Shade Of Pale” as an 11-year-old, a decade after it was first released. It’s a wonder I retain to this day. Never mind the wilfully impenetrable lyrics employing nautical metaphor to describe a seduction, it is the melody that arouses in me (as it were) a peculiar feeling, one of yearning and unease and, oddly, comfort. Like other Procol Harum favourites, such as “Homburg” or “Salty Dog”, it’s gothic and just a bit creepy.

King Curtis instrumental version of the song, recorded in early March 1971 at San Francisco’s Fillmore West with his group The Kingpins (Aretha Franklin’s backing band), retains that strange beauty, but displaces Procol Harum’s gothic sensibility with a soulful vibe. It later featured in the opening credits of the British cult movie Withnail And I (set in 1969, two years before Curtis’ recording).

Live At Fillmore West was released in August 1971. A week later, King Curtis was stabbed to death in New York by junkies whom he had asked to move from his property. He was 37.

Curtis died just as jazz fusion was making headway. One wonders how things might have panned out for him. He might have set an agenda quite different to that of fellow saxophonist Grover Washington Jr (never mind the even smoother David Sanborn). He surely would have been aghast at the later popularity of the elevator sax stylings of Kenny G, who has almost single-handedly robbed the great instrument of its street-cred.

Standards: We'll Meet Again

Johnny Cash: We'll Meet Again


"We'll Meet Again" is a song hope in times of trouble. A mega-hit in England at the dawn of World War II, the song was popularized by Vera Lynn, who is still alive and kicking at age 94. (In 2009, Dame Vera Lynn's "Best of" CD reached #1 on the British charts, making her the oldest person to achieve that distinction.) The song captured the national mood, helping Britons keep stiff upper lips as their soldiers headed off to battle and uncertain fates.

A quarter century later, "We'll Meet Again" was played for laughs in Dr. Strangelove, a tone that was echoed in what to many sounded like a tongue-in-cheek cover by the Byrds. But, to me, the most memorable version is the one on Johnny Cash's American IV - The Man Comes Around. Released in late 2002, American IV is the final album of new material issued during Cash's lifetime, and "We'll Meet Again" is the final track.

It's a fitting sign off; Cash was in ill health and repeated in interviews that his time was short and that he was looking forward to the afterlife. As a Johnny Cash fan from childhood, the song sent chills down my spine when I first heard it (even more so than "Hurt," whose companion video also foretold of Cash's demise). On "We'll Meet Again," Cash's voice is wobbly, but the instrumentation is surprisingly breezy. The opening guitar run by Thom Bresh (son of Cash's longtime friend Merle Travis) borrows from "Happy Trails to You." An uncharacteristic (for Cash) clarinet and Hawaiian-style dobro create the image of the singer sailing off into the sunset. Family and friends seem to be waving goodbye as they join in on the closing chorus. June Carter Cash can be heard in the crowd -- she would die less than six months after the record's release, with her husband joining her just a few months later.

Standards: Good Lovin'

Monkeys Typing: Good Lovin'

[Not available for purchase, but see below for more downloads]

1965 was the year I began listening to pop music. It's also the year Good Lovin' was written and released, though I can't claim to having heard either the Limmie Snell or The Olympics versions. I was, however, very much tuning in to AM radio when the more popularly known Young Rascals version hit the charts in 1966. The song is ranked number 325 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and as such, has been a standard for more than one musican and group.

The one band that I associate most strongly with the song as one of their "standards" is the Grateful Dead. It appears on their 1978 Shaedown Street album and I recall more than one Dead concert where I heard them play it.

The version here is a live cover by a Binghamton, NY "jam band" band called Monkeys Typing. My ears tell me the Grateful Dead rather than the Young Rascals must be the driving influence behind this version. In fact, Typing Monkeys list the Greatful Dead as one of their influences. Aside from the relative polish of their live performances, one thing that impresses me about Monkeys Typing is the fact that they - and the Grateful Dead - offer up a large collection of legally free music for you to download and listen to at, and that is where this version comes from.

posted by KKafa

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Standards: Up a Lazy River

Rickie Lee Jones: Up a Lazy River


I enjoy complex storytelling in songs as much as anyone, but songs that become standards often feature simple lyrics that give them a universal appeal. The songwriter captures a moment in time perfectly, and sets the mood in a way that is relevant to generations in both the present and the future. Up a Lazy River is a Hoagy Carmichael tune from 1930, but it still speaks to us today. Carmichael gives us a blissful summer day, and a couple drifting slowly down a stream, free of care, if only for a moment.

Rickie Lee Jones included the song in an entire album of standards, 2000’s It’s Like This. Her definition of a standard includes the Gershwins, the Beatles, and even Steely Dan. Jones finds the perfect setting for Up a Lazy River. She opens the song in a state of languid bliss, but halfway through, the current hastens and she is joined by a male chorus. This is a device that goes back at least to the swing era, and possibly also a nod to the hit version of the song by the Mills Brothers. The male chorus here is Dan Hicks, Ben Folds, and Taj Mahal. Jones sums up the proceedings perfectly at the end. “That was mighty good,” she says. Indeed.