New takes on old music favorites

Molly Schreiber

If the old adage is true and imitation really is the greatest form of flattery, why do cover bands get such a bad rap? While I have been guilty of writing off cover bands simply because of the genre, I’m not exactly sure why. I’ve certainly seen my fair share of mediocre tribute shows, but I have also seen some pretty incredible ones. Recently, I saw two bands that fall into the latter category.

At North Star Bar in Philadelphia, a Talking Heads tribute band called Start Making Sense kicked off the night of homage. As a lifelong fan of David Byrne’s incredibly unique voice and distinctive sound, I was beyond skeptical. I expected the band to deliver the set mechanically, mimicking each note in hopes of capturing the overall sound. Instead, the band focused more on channeling the essence of their inspiration. With small variations on the lyrics and intense attention to the fluidity of the show, Start Making Sense made the music their own. The frontman was doing more than just performing; he was delivering an ode to a band that changed music.

After an incredible set, Start Making Sense left the stage, making room for Meeting in the Aisle, a Radiohead tribute band. Once again, skepticism ensued, and, once again, the band rose to the occasion. Karl Danner, frontman and Thom Yorke impersonator, led the tribute with an eerie accuracy. Danner channeled Yorke, another exceedingly distinctive voice, with an obvious reverence to the music. This instrumental veneration was more than just a group of people imitating an artist; it was an interpretive homage.

So, the shows spurred a new thought; in what other ways have covers changed music? Immediately, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” comes to mind. After adapting and recording Otis Redding’s groundbreaking song, Franklin’s cover became an empowering anthem for women everywhere. Still considered to be one of Franklin’s best tracks, the recording proves to be one of the most successful and enduring covers in music history. Another staple in great covers is Joe Cocker’s rendition of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Cocker’s rough voice offers the song a new identity of sorts, distinctively separating it from the Beatles’ original version.

Even today, bands like the White Stripes and Local Natives have incorporated covers into their albums. Perhaps the secret to these successful covers is that very process of understated revision and individual alteration.

Each of these groundbreaking covers and impressive tribute bands share something in common: an unbridled respect for the original versions and artists. Without appreciating the music in its primary form, I think that it would be impossible to create a successful cover. Jeff Buckley’s haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” for example, reveals a deep understanding of the painful beauty of Cohen’s original recording.

So, before you turn down tickets to see a tribute band or skip over a cover on your iPod, take a moment to reconsider. These tributes are part of what makes music amazing. These recycled tracks and cover bands offer more than a new take on old favorites; they offer a fresh perspective on the power of music to endure and evolve over time.