by Ben Shine
We're just weeks away from one of my favorite events in the city – the Tonic Ball, when as many as 50 bands cover the music of rock legends. My love of cover songs is what first attracted me to the annual concert in Fountain Square twelve years ago, but learning about the organization it supported, Second Helpings, and the impact they have on our community is what made me jump at the chance to join the Tonic Ball Committee a few years later. Along with my co-committee members, I work hard, for at least 8 months of the year, to make the event happen. But, in the end, after all the hours and equipment wrangling and emails, I have a lot of fun each year at the event because of the covers.
I love a good cover song. A good cover can eclipse the original, make me re-think a song, or just complement its original, adding to the grand catalog of music. A bad cover will suck the soul out of a song, by missing something critical like the vibe or the factor that makes the song great or by trying too hard to directly copy the original or by simply existing at all.
At their best, covers offer listeners a new perspective, as artists play with tone, tempo, instrumentation, production and genre. Good cover artists are able to dissect a song piece by piece and recreate it in their own voice. Great cover songs stand completely apart from their originals, but also stand next to their originals. Cases in point? Dolly Parton's and Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," The Rolling Stones' and Devo's "Satisfaction," Wilco's and Bill Fay's "Jesus, Etc.," The Carpenters' and Sonic Youth's "Superstar," and Pulp's and William Shatner's "Common People."
Many songs that were prevalent in my childhood and teens were actually covers – "Hanging on the Telephone," "Manic Monday," "When U Were Mine," "Respect," "Blinded by the Light," "Tainted Love," "Nothing Compares 2 U," "One," "Hallelujah" (three acceptable versions to me – Jeff Buckley's, John Cale's, and Rufus Wainwright's), "Smoking in the Boys Room," "China Girl," "I Feel For You," "I Got My Mind Set On You" and on and on. (Curious about the lack of links to Prince's original songs? That man is mercurial and possessive of his tracks.)
Heck, the scourge that is Eric Clapton made a career on J.J. Cale carbon copies, a bad Bob Marley cover and a Bob Dylan tune. He did none of them well, if you ask me. If you're a fan, do yourself a favor and don't ask me.
Who does it well? I've got a few favorites. I put together a
mix below for your cover song listening enjoyment. Again, I don't think these
are necessarily the best covers ever, they're just my favorites for one reason or another.
Of course I want to know your best bets and what you think goes into making a
good cover, too, so comment away! These are my picks:
On Friday, November 22, you'll find me in the middle of Fountain Square, running between three venues, listening to jam bands and hipster musician types alike. This year, we're celebrating the music of the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty and the Pixies. Tonic is amazing because 50 local bands will put aside any differences or egos, lovingly pay homage to their rock heroes, and raise money for an amazing cause. We've covered many of rock's biggest names – The Beatles, Stones, Clash, Queen, U2, REM, the Kinks, Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, the Talking Heads and more.
Want a tip? The concert is close to selling out already. If you want to see some of the most talented local musicians doing amazing covers, buy a ticket right now – available only at LUNA music.