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MusiCares’ tribute to Bruce Springsteen, and the art of the cover version

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I believe it was the late, great, rock critic Lester Bangs who postulated there were only two reasons for anyone to try and do a cover version: Either completely reimagine the song, or blow the original away. Back in the 1970s, when this treatise was probably first published, it made sense. There was originality and talent to spare, 'Rock' was not yet 'Classic,' and no one heard of Simon Cowell.

However, I’m not sure Bangs’ theory still holds true today. For the past couple of decades at least, cover versions rarely blow away the original, and are often unimaginatively 'reimagined,' sometimes by the original artists, or at least a reasonable corporate facsimile.

Which brings us to the recently released concert film, “A MusiCares Tribute to Bruce Springsteen,” a benefit from February, 2013, featuring 16 cover versions of Boss songs, with a closing set from the honoree and the newest expanded permutation of the E Street Band, give or take a Soprano. The set is quite enjoyable from beginning to end, with no real clunkers, which in itself is an achievement, and there’s the added bonus of the profits going to a charity that helps musicians.

Anyway, back to the music. I was contemplating writing a review of the disc as I was watching it. When I arrived at the closing Springsteen set, I decided to press pause and check out what the number one Boss fansite, "Backstreets", had to say about the show, to use as background information for this article. I was fascinated by editor Chris Phillips’ review, which was mostly at odds with mine. This is not a criticism, but I was surprised to see someone so knowledgable about Springsteen having such a different perspective. Of course, Phillips’ fanaticism had made his Bruce site at least as important as the official one, if not more so. His views are not to be taken lightly.

We all have our opinions and points of view, our experiences and preferences. Phillips saw things through Boss-colored glasses, and he likes what he likes. I’ve been a Springsteen fan since the mid-1970s and have seen him over 30 times throughout the East Coast. And although he has given some of the most exciting and passionate concerts I've ever seen, I’ll admit my appreciation and devotion pales next to Phillips’.

I won’t go through a song-by-song comparison, but Philips divided the performances into three 'buckets': 'Quite Good,' 'Not-So-Good,' and 'Pretty Great.' The contrast is what fascinated me. Neither of us are 'right' or 'wrong,' but it opened up an internal dialogue about what music means to people and how it affects them viscerally.

As we lose more and more artists, it has forced the change of the aesthetic of what a cover version should be. Everything from the past is becoming a cover version. The performances have morphed from innovative and creative to celebratory and nostalgic. Paul McCartney performs about three dozen songs per show these days, many originally done by the Beatles, including compositions by the late John Lennon and George Harrison. His 12-year-old band plays letter-perfect Beatles’ covers, with just enough understanding and heart to embellish the songs without losing the spirit of the original iconic recordings. The current expanded Rolling Stones lineup recreates the band’s second 'Classic Era' (1968-1972), often with only three of the original members on stage. Former bandmates in the Grateful Dead cover plenty of songs originally sung by Jerry Garcia, with lyrics by Robert Hunter. One could look at these acts as cover or tribute bands, with a founding member or three. However, if they can’t do these songs, who can? Especially if people still want to hear them.

To start the MusiCares evening, the Alabama Shakes did a letter-perfect rendition of “Adam Raised a Cain,” and I was amazed by the musicianship. It wasn’t anything better than what Springsteen could still do, but they got it, and it was impressive. Patti Smith’s take on “Because the Night,” with a touching introduction on how she wrote the song’s finished lyrics while thinking about her husband, the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, added extra power and depth. I also particularly enjoyed Emmylou Harris, both Tom Morello performances, Mavis Staples, John Legend’s version of “Dancing In The Dark,” and Charlie Musslewhite.

Here’s where the schism begins: I thought the three acts in Phillips’ 'Not-So-Great Bucket' were among the best. I liked Juanes’ brave, half-Spanish interpretation of “Hungry Heart;” Sting held his own on the very difficult “Lonesome Day;” and Neil Young and Crazy Horse tore the place up with “Born in the U.S.A.”

To me, Neil and the Horse nailed it. It was the best act all night, a complete surprise. The only performance to match the magic and manic intensity of a Springsteen show. The addition of two awkward, clueless cheerleaders holding invisible rifles was a stroke of genius, and the sound had the smell of the Horse all over it. No one would misinterpret this “Born in the U.S.A.” as a jingoistic anthem. Springsteen compared it to the Sex Pistols, and he wasn’t far off. It's better to burn out than to fade away. Phillips, for whatever reason, didn’t get it, and insisted “it was awful,” and to not “let anyone tell you otherwise.” Well, I’m telling you otherwise. I also know many of my friends would agree with Phillips. Which is what makes Young, Springsteen, and their fan’s musical passions, fascinating.

Springsteen’s acceptance speech was full of hubris and humility, sincerity and self-deprecation; an appreciation of the night and the fans. It also included the occasional F-bomb, but unlike the host, fellow Jersey boy Jon Stewart, The Boss went uncensored. The finale featured Springsteen playing the oldest and newest material of the night with equal passion, because apparently he still loves the songs. It was like he became the Dylan and Presley fans wanted but never got. The songs didn’t sound like cover versions, even though more than half the people on stage didn’t play on the original “Born To Run.” For the “Glory Days” finale, a glorious chaos ensued, with almost everyone joining The Boss on stage; Neil Young in the back on the drum riser hitting the snare; and some levity added by Stewart as he tried to sneak up to be near his musical hero. There was also apparently some post-production magic utilized to fix someone's missed vocals.

It was really fun to spot people onstage, like Larry Campbell on guitar, fiddle, and mandolin; and in the audience, including Conan O’Brien, Jann Wenner, Sean Penn, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Olivia and Dhani Harrison.

In the end, this was as good a Springsteen tribute as could be arranged around a Grammy appearance. There were no performances I would skip; almost all eras were represented; and forty years down the road, the songs hold up. Some versions, like Jackson Browne’s “American Skin (41 Shots),” weigh even more heavily than when they were released, now that the static from Radio Nowhere has ceased.

Your milage may vary.

MusiCares Setlist:

  • Alabama Shakes – Adam Raised a Cain
  • Patti Smith – Because The Night
  • Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite & Natalie Maines – Atlantic City
  • Ken Casey – American Land
  • Mavis Staples and Zac Brown – My City Of Ruins
  • Mumford and Sons – I’m on Fire
  • Jackson Browne and Tom Morello – American Skin (41 Shots)
  • Emmylou Harris – My Hometown
  • Kenny Chesney – One Step Up
  • Elton John – Streets Of Philadelphia
  • Juanes – Hungry Heart
  • Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – Tougher Than The Rest
  • Tom Morello and Jim James – The Ghost of Tom Joad
  • John Legend – Dancing in the Dark
  • Sting – Lonesome Day
  • Neil Young & Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgrin) – Born in the U.S.A.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band set:

  • We Take Care Of Our Own
  • Death To My Hometown
  • Thunder Road
  • Born To Run
  • Glory Days (Group finale)

2013-02-08 – LOS ANGELES CONVENTION CENTER, LOS ANGELES, CA

Keep up with Harold’s Performing Arts Examiner news columns. Just click on Subscribe above, or follow @DylanExaminer on Twitter. Harold Lepidus also writes the Bob Dylan column for Examiner.com. Thanks for your support.

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