Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paying A Debt To The Masters - Two Great Live Covers

David Rawlings Machine (incl. Gillian Welch, Jon Brion, Benmont Tench, Sebastian Steinberg) - Queen Jane Approximately (Live at Largo, LA)

From a David Rawlings Machine live performance that I downloaded recently, this is certainly the best cover I've ever heard of the Dylan classic, and (dare I say) may even rival the original. If that sounds blasphemous, I should admit that QJA is my least favorite song on Highway 61 Revisited. Of course, that album has no bad songs, or anything remotely close, but I've just always found "Queen Jane" a bit repetitive. It drags in a way that "Desolation Row", at twice the length, never does (thanks in large part to Charlie McCoy's acoustic guitar).

Rawlings and company (who probably wouldn't agree with my assessment) address this problem, such as it is, very simply and effectively, with superb instrumental performances. The acoustic guitars propel the song forward, and Benmont Tench's piano (from what I've been able to determine, it's Tench on piano and not Jon Brion, who was apparently on guitar) provides ultra-tasty accents throughout. The combo of acoustic guitar and piano is a great, underexploited sound, and the way the band rides the instrumental groove they've built up toward the end of the song reminds me of some of Ronnie Lane's songs with the Faces, with their instrumental outros giving Ian McLagan a chance to shine.

On record, David Rawlings has always lived in (or been) the shadow of his partner Gillian Welch. His harmonies are so exceptionally tight and close that he seems to disappear into her voice at the same time as he's hugely enhancing the effect of it. Live, though, his acoustic guitar playing tends to steal the show. No one plays quite like he does, a bluegrass flatpicking virtuoso's dexterity with an expressive, emotional depth and directness that, at its best, seems to be on loan from Neil Young. The Machine has a record coming out soon - pretty safe bet that it'll be a winner.

The Bottle Rockets - Lookout Joe (Live at the Mercury Lounge, NYC)

As I may have mentioned before, The Bottle Rockets are the greatest interpreters of Neil Young's music out there today. The only officially released evidence of this is on their sole live album (a new live DVD is in the works), in the form of savage versions of "Hey Hey My My" and "Cortez the Killer", but anyone who has followed them over the years (or done some YouTube searching) has probably heard a wide variety of other Neil material, from "Walk On" to "Down By The River". The David Rawlings show I discuss above contains good versions of "Field of Opportunity" and "Cortez", and I've heard Welch and Rawlings absolutely nail "Albequerque", a slow, minor-key song perfectly suited to their style, but no one can touch the Bottle Rockets when it comes to getting across the raw gut punch of Neil's best electric music.

Lately they've honed "Lookout Joe" (from Tonight's The Night, and referenced in the BRox deep cut "Dohack Joe") into one of the most sure-fire, fearsome weapons in their arsenal. As the seemingly unplanned final encore at the band's recent Mercury Lounge show, it brought an excellent night of rock'n'roll to a satisfying conclusion. They totally inhabited the song's peculiar groove and achieved ragged glory on the bridge's "craaaazy clowwwwwn" peak. Like I said, untouchable.

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