All too often, bands you’re dying to check out — especially new ones — play shortened sets due to only having like ten songs to pull from — and you tend to walk away feeling a tad unsatisfied. I’ve always thought this is the perfect excuse to work up a cover song: It not only fleshes out the set, but, in many ways, introduces the audience to a band’s influences and own songs, and ultimately wins over fans. If a young band pulls out a great cover song, it actually makes me want to delve into its original music more. Go figure. So yeah, I love a well-chosen cover song, and especially one pulled off live in concert.
And this year, I was lucky enough to hear a bunch of them. Here’s a few:
Telekinesis, “Don’t Change” by INXS at South By Southwest, Austin
Telekinesis’ Michael Benjamin Lerner makes some of my favorite power pop ever, or at least since Superchunk, and in 2013 put out not only one of my favorite records, but perhaps the band’s best yet. I caught this band two or maybe three times at South By Southwest this spring and in addition to some of the new songs — which add a lot more great synth pop hooks to the distorted, crunchy guitars — one of the highlights was a spot on and perfect rendition of “Don’t Change” — my favorite song by INXS. Watching Lerner both sing and play drums to this song with his excellent band was one of my favorite concert moments of the festival.
Wildcat! Wildcat!, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears at South By Southwest, Austin
All I really knew about Wildcat! Wildcat! before I caught them at SXSW was its silly name with too many exclamation marks — but honestly in a year full of awesome bands with silly names, they had one of the tamer ones (looking at you Pity Sex, Joanna Gruesome, Diarrhea Planet). Still, I kinda dug the band’s synthy indie rock sound. But what won me over was a cover of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” The song seems to be having a new moment right now, but for as many artists that are trying to do it right now — Lorde’s fine, but dour interpretation from the Catching Fire soundtrack included — few bands have pulled off the song’s tone and spirit quite right. But Wildcat! Wildcat!’s own music seemed embedded enough in Tears For Fears’ orbit to do the song justice.
CHVRCHES, “I Would Die 4 U,” at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Considering CHVRCHES had only put out maybe five songs by the time I caught them this summer, I had no idea what to expect, besides a preview of material from the then-still-unannounced upcoming record that came out this fall. So yeah, it was cool to see this fizzy electronic pop trio try out a bunch of brand new songs and fall in love many of them right away.
But when the Glasgow band came back for an encore, I turned to a friend and more or less said “I have no idea what they’ll play, I think their out of songs.” Turns out, CHVRCHES had worked up a superb version of Prince’s hit “I Would Die 4 U” (renaming it with a “V,” you know, like the band’s more-Google-able name). Not only did the band reinvent the original’s sexy soul as chirpy maximalist synth pop, but singer Laura Mayberry toyed with Prince’s gender ambiguous lyrics — “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” A fantastic encore that left the audience humming all the way home.
Those Darlins, “White Light/White Heat” by The Velvet Underground at Mercury Lounge, New York
I was shocked when I met Those Darlins’ singer Jessi Zazu after this show how petite she is. Because watching her from the stage, she’s an absolute force — clad in all white, Zazu tries on some classic rock moves with some fantastic femme fatale strutting and a piercing death stare equally fearsome and magnetic. The Nashville band’s songs have this spooky mash of country fried punk rock and booze soaked ballads, scorching, gothy and amazing. So it sorta made sense that the band’s encore cover of The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” was a perfect match, especially for a Lower Manhattan crowd. In hindsight, this show wasn’t all that long before Lou Reed died, which makes this killer performance shine just that much brighter.
Beck, “I Am The Cosmos” by Chris Bell at Le Poisson Rouge, New York
I’ll admit, I’ve been lucky enough now to see Beck four times over the years, in four completely different settings — and all have been stellar and special in their own way. What can I say? He’s probably one of my biggest musical heroes. This summer, I had the chance to catch him and his newly-reformed band (including Smokey Hormel, Jason Falkner, Roger Manning) play Beck’s music in an all-acoustic show. It was a warmup show for his upcoming spot at the Newport Folk Festival, so it was a little loose and rambling and hilarious, in the best possible ways.
The set mixed a lot of material from Sea Change and Mutations (my two favorite records from him), plus some old classic hits reworked, a few selections from his Song Reader sheet music project. Oh yeah, and a few covers — namely “I Am The Cosmos,” a song from the lone solo album from Big Star’s Chris Bell. In Beck’s fingers, the song’s melancholy psychedelic folk melodies suitably matched that Sea Change tone, but also served as a nice tribute to a sometimes under-heralded songwriter who clearly influenced a lot of artists, Beck included. It was a great moment in a concert brimming with them.
Mikal Cronin, “Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric, at Bowery Ballroom, New York
If you know Mikal Cronin’s melodic garage rock from this year’s fantastic record MCII, then you know how awesome it would be to hear him pull off Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” for a jampacked (admittedly bro-y) and rowdy moshing crowd. It’s a loud, sneering song, but ultimately, a catchy love song, and one of my favorites.
Two Honorable Mentions:
Joanna Gruesome, “Tugboat” by Galaxie 500 at CMJ, New York
I either don’t remember the band playing this Galaxie 500 song, or more likely, I probably didn’t recognize it at the time because it was so thrashy and loud. But since the band released a version as a B-side, I’m pretty damn sure the band played it the two times I saw em during CMJ. And it’s really fucking good.
Lorde, “Swinging Party” by The Replacements at Webster Hall, New York
Somehow, I had missed that Lorde had released a version of The Replacements’ song, so when the emerging New Zealand pop star pulled it out at a packed Webster Hall show, I was totally caught off guard. But this arrangement was really amazing, and surprisingly worked alongside her big hits “Royals” and “Tennis Court.” Then, to keep blowing up any preconceptions I may have had about Lorde and her music, she did a snippet of Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor,” you know, because she can.