The former music biz guy turned newsletter ranter, Bob Lefsetz, has a piece today about something called Skyville Live. Skyville Live is a video show that appears to be a small club in which mostly old musicians play with a crackin’ house band, reeling off classic tunes quite wonderfully. Lefsetz hinges his piece on this cover of the Allman Brothers Whipping Post by country star Chris Stapleton.
Stapleton is a rising star, maybe a rised star. He’s written more than a handful of No. 1 hits, and since becoming a recording performer (in 2015) has been nominated for just about every major award and won some of them, too. So, he’s living the dream.
Skyville Live, it turns out, is a video show out of Nashville that is shown on some weird Verizon channel, and has clips on Vimeo.
Here’s my gripe. Whipping Post is a great song. It’s also a great song because the Allman Brothers recorded it twice brilliantly. And those performances are a part of what makes Whipping Post one of the great classic rock songs of all time.
In contrast, this cover, which seems to be conferring cannon status on the song, is kind of small. I was going to get into a whole argument about organic versus copies, about virtuosity versus chops, about the magic of the moment versus the nod toward nostalgia, about the weak slide guitar, but then I found this clip of the Allman Brothers playing the song in 1970.
I can’t help but think that Stapleton and band, no matter how well intentioned, aren’t paying tribute to the song. It feels like they’re speaking to their own glory by covering a transcendent performance—in a professional manner.
Whipping Post is a great song, but part of the thing that made it as great as it is is the arrangement and musicianship of the Allman Brothers. Stapleton and his session guys are excellent, but they chose the wrong song. They act like they’re playing a song from the cannon, a tune that a proficient rendering will justify. But it doesn’t. The great classic rock songs are usually tied not only to the excellence of the song, but also the moment (and excellence) of the performance. If you don’t live up to that, why bother?
This isn’t to say that great songs and performances can’t be covered, they can, but the artist has to bring something else to the table besides the cover. Think about the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, one of the great tunes of all time:
Devo, of course, raised their profile by their brilliant cover, which totally resets the song. Way to go, Devo.