The practice of “covers” in pop music is part of the long tradition in music of making arrangements, variations, homages, etc. in response to a given composition. To be sure the majority of these efforts are, though well-meaning, mediocre or worse. But on the whole they can be quite fascinating and even revelatory. Ravel’s masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ is so well done that few people are even aware that the original is a piano solo work. The orchestration so enhances the original as to immortalize it and upstage the original version. Similarly The Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ has become the most recognized version of that song.
‘Undercover Presents’ is a concert organization which has been producing a very unusual set of concerts. Taking an album by a given artist and recruiting a different band/musician to cover each of the songs and then presenting both a studio recording and a live concert of the results. So far they have done Velvet Underground and Nico, Pixies’ Doolittle, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and, most recently, Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The musicians are all from the San Francisco Bay Area and that comprises a huge trove of talented and innovative artists. Their albums are available on bandcamp.com
I saw the production of Blue this past September and I will be there again this coming Monday having recruited some additional friends, “You gotta come see this!”
The first band, ‘Killbossa’ is inspired by the Brazilian art/music/political movement of the late 1960s known as ‘tropicalismo’ and is a combination of a variety of different musical styles including bossa nova, psychedelic rock, avant-garde and Brazilian popular music. They covered the first song on the album, ‘All I Want’.
Next up Bharathi Palivela, a singer with traditional Hindustani vocal training teamed up with San Francisco bassist and teacher Daniel Fabricant covering ‘My Old Man’.
Georgia native, now San Francisco based bluegrass singer with her banjo and band put their spin on ‘Little Green’.
‘Carey’ was given a reading by clarinetist, vocalist Beth Custer with her strongly jazz inflected ensemble.
Kitka is an all female a capella group specializing in eastern european style folk singing. Their a capella cover of ‘Blue’ was alone worth the price of admission.
Amy X Neuberg is an Oakland based singer, performer and tech wizard. With her voice and electronics she created a unique version of ‘California’.
Jazz/funk/hip-hop/R and B Jazz Mafia with Aima the Dreamer and Erica Dee did a raucous version of ‘This Flight Tonight’.
Cajun/blues/southern fiddler and singer with her band did a country blues version of ‘River’.
The Seshen is an electro-pop ensemble that, like the other musicians in this show, is hard to categorize. They did an ecstatic cover of ‘A Case of You’.
Katy Stephan and her group Classical Revolution ended the evening with ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’.
All the musicians barely crowded on to the stage to acknowledge the standing ovation from the very appreciative crowd.
Whether you know the original Joni Mitchell album or not you can’t fail to find something exciting, eye-opening and enjoyable in these performances. The range of creativity and talent is staggering. The bands played with a subtle but effective visual display that unified their efforts and added another aspect to both the music and the performance. I’m sure Joni would be pleased.
Did I say that the ticket price includes a free download of the studio album? Well it does and it serves as a great reminder of a truly unique bay area experience. Maybe I’ll see you there.