I’ve been watching (in bits and pieces) the–what do you call it? Concert? Presentation? Whatever it’s called, the hour-plus Youtube video of Billy Joel receiving the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Billy Joel has been my favorite singer/songwriter for years; I was actually really bugged at an article slamming him that one of my high school friends shared on Facebook. I have no issue with people’s tastes differing, you understand, but how can you categorically ridicule an artist if you are only commenting on his greatest hits album (and only the first two volumes of it to boot!)? In my experience, what’s popular and what’s best often don’t intersect at all as you’d think, and I know that some of my favorite songs by him are not on the albums the reviewer mocked. (I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged only on my most publicly known accomplishments.)
I digress, however, from my stated topic. Several of his songs were covered by other artists–some I was familiar with, and some I wasn’t–with (in my humble opinion) varying degrees of success. I will freely admit that I’m a creature of habit and don’t love changes to things I enjoy; on the other hand, I can at least respect some changes. Tony Bennett’s cover of “New York State of Mind,” for example, isn’t exactly my style, but I can appreciate that the song works for him and he made it his own in a way I can honor, even if I wouldn’t choose to listen to it again. Gavin DeGraw’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” worked for me pretty well, and I didn’t so much have problems with J-Gro’s version of “She’s Always a Woman” as I have problems getting past the lyrics of that song regardless of the singer. (Bob, a fabulous music seller from my Borders days, gave Josh Groban that nickname after a year of his being part of our overhead music selection, and it still makes me giggle.) I thought he was an interesting choice to cover anything of Billy’s, but that song was probably a good one for him. I didn’t enjoy LeAnn Rimes’ version of “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)”; it may be that I just don’t love her, but she took a gentle song and belted it out like a (slightly deranged) diva instead. As for the Dixie Chick–Natalie Maines?–I didn’t mind her singing, particularly, but the country-ish guitar in the background was a step down for “She’s Got a Way” as far as I’m concerned. (I also read a review of the concert before watching her, and the reviewer pointed out that changing the lyrics to third person seemed unnecessary. This also bugged me, but I can’t swear I would have been as bothered had I not gone into it with that in my head.) I wanted to like Boyz II Men singing “The Longest Time,” but I just didn’t. (I’m not really sure why, though.) My mind almost threw up during John Mellencamp’s cover of “Allentown”–it was physically painful for me. Just–WHY? I don’t hate him–I enjoy some of his music–but why do that to a song? (I don’t like Garth Brooks or country music, but his cover of the same song at the Kennedy Center in 2013 was unobjectionable.) The most interesting cover of the night, certainly, was the group effort on “Piano Man,” which was–interesting. Not necessarily my preference, mind you, but certainly memorable and impressive. I quite enjoyed the surprise of Kevin Spacey–I really didn’t know he sang at all, and his harmonica was the icing on the cake–and while I thought Michael Feinstein looked kind of ridiculous when he sang, I can’t really quibble with his performance. (I just felt like he was about to sob.) My opinion of the other artists involved was pretty close to my opinion of their other performances of the night, now that I think about it.
In summary, it’s been an interesting experience for a fan, although I wouldn’t buy a recording of it. And lest you think that I am incapable of appreciating a good cover, I actually like U2’s version of “Helter Skelter” (from Rattle and Hum) quite a bit better than the original.
Sorry, Beatles fans.