This column rides out a riff that I began a week or so ago when I reviewed Brad Hoshaw’s solo set at Lauritzen Gardens. It got me thinking about cover songs and what goes into an artist’s decision to cover a specific song, and how ultimately stupid it is for anyone other than the artist him/herself to suggest a cover song for him/her to perform.
Column 187: Skipping Boston
When choosing a cover, choose wisely.
The scene was an early evening outdoor concert held in a lovely cove at Lauritzen Gardens featuring headliner Orenda Fink and opener Brad Hoshaw.
We sat in the moist grass surrounded by families and older couples (as well as a few well-coifed hipsters) trying to eek out as much warmth and sunlight as we could in the waning days of summer. For most people there, the concert was a last hurrah before football season and the return of school days. Hoshaw, standing like a bearded griz hunter with a guitar strapped over his shoulder, rifled though his usual set of homemade songs about love, death, booze, drugs and regrets with the conviction of a man making his last confession before being led off to the gas chamber. Hoshaw is one of city’s best singer-songwriter, a true craftsman who takes song writing very seriously, and it shows in every heart-felt chorus and verse.
About three-quarters of the way through his hour-plus set, Hoshaw introduced a song by The Twilight Singers — Greg Dulli’s post-Afghan Whigs band. Hoshaw took the typically dark rock song with lyrics about Christ and sex (titled “Last Temptation”) and turned it into a somber, introspective, dread lullaby that in no way resembled the original. He made it a Hoshaw song, not that anyone in the thirty-something, forty-something (fifty-something, sixty-something) crowd would know the difference since they very likely hadn’t heard the original before.
“It’s from one of my top-10 favorite albums of all time,” Hoshaw said from a cabin in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “While watching a live video of them performing it, it hit me that the melody and lyrics were something I’d write. It fits my personality and seemed like a song that I could put myself into. The only way I do covers is to somehow make them my own.”
I’m a firm believer that every original band needs to do at least one cover song during their set. It gives the crowd a glimpse into their personal psyche, a clue as to where the songwriter is coming from and where he’s headed.
But playing a cover can be risky. Just ask Mike Tulis, bassist for The Third Men, The Monroes and a handful of other great bands throughout the years. The Third Men always manages to work a cover or two into their set without letting them overshadow their own catchy material. Among the favorites, Paul McCartney’s smash “Jet,” Richard and Linda Thomspon’s “Wall of Death,” and, of course, Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City,” featuring Tulis on lead vocals. It was the Gilder song that threatened to eclipse everything. I first saw them play it at The Waiting Room to a frenzied crowd, and then for the next few gigs thereafter, the buzz was whether they were going to play it again.
“That’s the risk of doing a cover song,” Tulis said. “It can certainly throw a spotlight on the band’s own songs. Are they as well-written or well put together? Sometimes that’s why bands kind of shy away from doing a cover or they don’t do it that often. It can become the song everyone’s waiting to hear. Some people sort of take the attitude that I’d rather play our song than someone else’s, you know?”
He recalled what Third Men frontman Pat White said about covers. “Pat’s attitude is that you’re asking an audience for quite a bit to come in and listen to songs they may have never heard before. You’ve put them through the paces of hearing everything you wrote. There’s nothing wrong with playing a song they know. As long as it doesn’t become the song you’re known for. That can become a problem.”
No band wants to be known as “the guys who do that great (fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-band) cover.” But maybe I was over-thinking the whole thing. “It’s not like a brand you have to carry around with you for the rest of existence,” Tulis said. “I don’t know if it sums up your whole band; it can if you let it, but I don’t think most bands do that. Most bands try a song because they love it.”
While listening to Hoshaw that evening, Teresa leaned over and whispered, “He’s got the perfect voice for ‘Please Come to Boston.'” She was dead right. Anyone who grew up as I did forced to listen to KFAB remembers the classic Dave Loggins hit that starts, “Please come to Boston for the springtime / I’m stayin’ here with some friends and they’ve got lots of room.” Remember it now? Had Hoshaw played that song instead of that Twilight Singers tune, the sleepy older crowd would have hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him around the water lily pond. But I told Teresa there was no way he would ever cover something so completely unhip.
It turned out that Hoshaw had never even heard the song before, and had to look it up on the Internet. The problem with the tune had nothing to do with its cool factor, he said. “The status of a song being cool or not doesn’t cross my mind. I’ve covered Toad the Wet Sprocket before, and that’s not cool. I just pick songs I like and then work with them. A lot of them I scrap because I’m not adding anything unique.”
After working with the song for an hour, Hoshaw said he finally gave up. And maybe that’s for the best. After all, I’m the guy who picked the song, not Brad. Its selection said more about me and Teresa’s cheesy taste than Brad’s songwriting voice. And after all, who wants to be known as the guy who does “Please Come to Boston”?
Still, someday, maybe? Come on, Brad.
As you read this I’m sitting in a jet flying to NYC for the weekend where I’ll be enjoying the U.S. Open, The Yankees, maybe something on Broadway, maybe a show on the Lower East Side. You’ll be here, enjoying a fine 3-day weekend of music. Here’s what’s going on:
Thursday night (tonight!) Fromanhole plays at The Barley St. with The Lepers. It’s probably free, so you can’t beat the price. Start off your weekend a day early.
Friday night’s marquee show is, of course, UUVVWWZ (read about ’em here) with The Show Is the Rainbow and Stolen Kisses at Slowdown Jr. The only thing I regret about this NYC trip is missing this show. It starts at 9 and costs $7.
Also Friday night, a loaded bill at The Waiting Room featuring Techlepathy, Ladyfinger, The Stay Awake, Perry H. Matthews and Private Dancer — amazing line-up. $7, 9 p.m. Over at PS Collective, Panang featuring Orenda Fink plays with Outlaw Con Bandana, $5, 10 p.m. O’Leaver’s has The Dinks, Imperial Battlesnake and Droids Attack, $5, 9:30 p.m. (be sure you check out Workers, now open, with a tasty Italian Beef sandwich and damn fine hotdogs (get ’em early, they ran out last Saturday night before they closed). One last show worth mentioning: Over at The Saddle Creek Bar (and Grill) New York band Your 33 Black Angels is playing with The Clincher and a third band. $5, 9 p.m.
Saturday, the Saddle Creek Bar (and Grill) is hosting Laborpalooza featuring 15 bands playing outdoors (2 to 10 p.m.) and indoors (9 to 1 a.m.) Cover is $7 for the whole day. Saturday night it’s Fortnight at O’Leaver’s with Landing on the Moon and The Dark Circles, $5, 9:30 p.m. Meanwhile, down at Slowdown, it’s a battle of the tribute/cover bands featuring The Song Remains the Same and Secret Weapon. $8, 9 p.m.
Sunday afternoon, Eagle*Seagull performs at Heartland of America Park as part of the 2008 Walk for Inclusion. Registration and other event information is available here. E*S performs at 3:45.
Check back over the next few days. There may be an update from the road. Maybe. Maybe not.
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