Ka-Ching…With Twang – Rock’n’Roll Tribute Albums

Rock music is, at the oldest guess, coming towards its seventieth birthday. Elvis Presley’s first recording came out in 1954. The Beatles’ line-up solidified in 1963 when they went into Abbey Road and put down their first album in a 12-hour session after two years’ hard gigging. On a weekly basis one of the old guard – David Crosby, Jeff Beck, Charlie Watts – is going up to the Great Gig in the Sky.

And so the music industry is trying to shore up its legends before they leave this earth. Bob Dylan sold his catalogue to ensure his grandkids and their grandkids don’t have to work on Maggie’s Farm, and I am positive Taylor Swift is already future-proofing her catalogue even though she’s barely in her thirties. U2 have put out a 40-track retrospective of re-recordings, and Bono admitted to love ABBA as much as The Edge loved progressive rock. Catalogue is not tribal.

What about figures like Joni Mitchell and Mick Jagger, heroes of the baby boomer generation who are now settling into their retirement? Well, their listeners are. The Stones toured last summer and the Jagger/Richards partnership celebrates sixty years in the business. Their cover of Come On by Chuck Berry came out a few months after that first Beatles album, which was released into full Cliffmania. Summer Holiday was number one that spring, with Gerry and the Pacemakers leading the Merseybeat charge. The Stones hit number one twice in 1964 and a confected rivalry began.

Robert Deaton, who puts on the CMA Awards every year, surely has a TV special in mind for his celebration of Mick’n’Keef’n’company. Stoned Cold Country follows the example set by Elton John a few years ago when Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris were among the country voices taking the lead from Reggie, who came up in the wake of both Beatles and Stones.

Just as they were with Rocket Man on the Elton project, Little Big Town are set loose for the harmonies of Wild Horses, the most overtly country hit song in the Stones’ catalogue which was co-written by Gram Parsons. Tumbling Dice was a hit for Linda Ronstadt, and it’s impossible not to hear her voice in Elle King’s interpretation. Lainey Wilson gets the seven-minute blues-rock of You Can’t Always Get What You Want (raised from C to E-flat), wrapping her Louisiana twang around words like ‘reception’ and ‘demonstration’, though she can also make ‘hand’ sound Southern. Have you ever looked at the lyric sheet to that song? Complete nonsense, but plenty of open vowels, like Wonderwall or Mr Brightside.

As you’d expect, there is nothing here from the Stones canon that goes beyond Miss You, because even the Stones stopped inventing themselves after they hung out at Studio 54. That song, by the way, is smartly crooned by Jimmie Allen, who gives Jagger’s talk-singing and the vocalised hook a good reading.

From their early catalogue are Paint It Black (Zac Brown Band, introduced by Jimmy De Martini’s trusty fiddle), Satisfaction (Ashley McBryde, who moves the key up from E to A) and Sympathy for the Devil, where Elvie Shane leads the famous ‘woo-woo!’ chorus which was originally supplied by Marianne Faithful and Keith’s partner Anita Pallenberg.

Steve Earle (Angie, a great choice because his voice is in the same tenor as Jagger’s) and Brooks & Dunn (Honky Tonk Women, plenty of oomph) represent the old stagers who would have remembered hearing the Stones on rock radio as teenagers, while some of the rockier acts in town also show up to the party bearing riffs. Eric Church is an obvious choice for Gimme Shelter, whose gospel-flavoured rock he has been ripping off (paying homage to, sorry!) for his entire career, including his use of Joanna Cotten as a superlative backing vocalist until recently in a ripoff of/homage to Merry Clayton, whose part on Gimme Shelter would now be given a co-credit.

Marcus King and Koe Wetzel offer Can’t You Hear Me Knocking and Shine A Light: the former has a delicious Fender Rhodes keys solo and a nice long wigout, while the latter faithfully reproduces the gospely original and makes me think how awesome it would be if a huge band, complete with singers and a horn section, could appear more often than just as a one-off recording or TV special. Where is the Jools Holland Rhythm’n’Blues Orchestra of the States? Where is their Ruby Turner?

Maren Morris takes on Dead Flowers, a track from Sticky Fingers which has a dusting of pedal steel. I can’t think why Brown Sugar, also from that album, is missing but it must be something to do with the opening line ‘Gold Coast slave ships bound for cotton fields’. Instead we get Brothers Osborne and The War and Treaty singing about how much they like rock’n’roll, a lightweight song about nothing but itself, albeit with some terrific vocals and guitar playing from the four musicians out front. It more or less sums up the projects: glitz over grime, right on the border where the commercial meets the interesting.

Talking of interesting: I really think Joni Mitchell will end up as the most acclaimed singer/songwriter of the rock era. Move over Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen with your poetry; Joni veered from folk to jazz and invented her own idiom which I call Joniana. Nobody before Joni Mitchell wrote songs like she did; afterwards, so many tried to match her. Listen to a Brandi Carlile song to see the through line from Joni’s music to today’s Americana/Joniana stars.

Both Sides Now is a recent tribute album which acts as a companion piece to Stoned Cold Country. It is credited to Redtenbacher’s Funkestra, named after the arranger Stefan Redtenbacher who has recorded each song live with no overdubs and with the vocalist singing with the orchestra in the Sinatra manner.

There are, of course, tracks from Blue. Little Green, the song about the daughter Joni had to give up for adoption, is sung by Sarah Jane Morris. Jo Harman croons the album’s title track and glides over a sumptuous arrangement of A Case of You, which kd lang has also tackled. Mike Mayfield closes the album by skating away on River, which Herbie Hancock turned inside out on his own Album of the Year-winning tribute to Joni.

I first heard Circle Game on Mount Masada in Israel when it was used in a barmitzvah ceremony so I can’t hear the ‘painted ponies’ of the chorus without imagining desert sands. Hamish Stuart takes vocals here over a light jazz guitar-led arrangement, while the gorgeously lush voice of Rumer tackles Amelia (‘hexagram of the heavens…like Icarus ascending on beautiful foolish arms’!!) and Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow, which has a typically Joniesque structure where the music supports the words, like church music in the Renaissance.

Mayfield also takes the standard Both Sides Now, which is given treatment akin to Bridge Over Troubled Water, while Jana Varga is employed on Free Man in Paris, a song written from the perspective of David Geffen and featuring the word ‘unfettered’, which I don’t think Mick Jagger would have written. Mim Grey is the vocalist on two songs from the 1991 album Night Ride Home: the title track and (suitably, as she must have pointed out) Two Grey Rooms, with its repeated hook ‘below my window’.

There has been a recent craze for symphony orchestras being paired with original recordings of rock musicians (Elvis, Neil Diamond, Bob Marley, Roy Orbison), and ABBA have used motion-capture technology to entertain performers who don’t mind watching simulacra. But this sort of tribute album, using spectacular voices and A-grade arrangements, will be a way to pay respect to artists and introduce them anew.

Indeed, the Southbank Centre hosts a David Bowie tribute evening where acts including Jake Shears and Anna Calvi reimagine Aladdin Sane as part of a weekend celebrating the golden anniversary of the album’s release. What next: 50 Years of Hiphop? 50 Years of Disco? 40 Years of Bono?

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