Elton John & Bernie Taupin Tribute CDs “Revamp” & “Restoration” Evoke Different Responses

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Earlier this year, the legendary pianist, vocalist and performer Elton John announced that, after 50 years on the road as a musician, he would be retiring from the road. There’s plenty of reason to believe John when he says this – he’s never even mentioned the idea of quitting prior to 2018 and seems quite happy performing (his residency in Las Vegas was one of the hottest seats in town). The announcement of his retirement disappointed many of his longtime fans and made interest in his concert tour more special that simply being able to see the virtuoso.

Along with his farewell tour, John has also been feted with not one but two new CDs from artists paying tribute to the songwriting of John and his studio partner, Bernie Taupin. This isn’t the first time that the duo has gotten this treatment; back in 1991, they were the subject of a tribute album called Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (the title of the CD reflected the fact that John and Taupin often worked separately on songs, with John coming up with the music and Taupin writing the lyrics in…two rooms). The record featured artists as diverse as The Who, Kate Bush, Oleta Adams, The Beach Boys, Wilson Phillips and Bruce Hornsby (his version of “Madman Across the Water” is nearly as good as the original) and their take on some of the classic music from John & Taupin.

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With John calling an end to his touring days, it seems natural for another trip down memory lane and instead of one CD, fans get two. There’s a reason for this:  one CD, called Revamp, is filled with the top artists from the pop world and their renditions of popular John/Taupin tunes, and the other CD, called Restoration, features the best in current country music taking their shots at saluting John/Taupin. Surprisingly, it is the country side that wins out the “reimaging” (why not just “tribute”) battle between the two CDs.

Revamp kicks off with a snippet of John performing “Bennie and the Jets” before segueing into rapper Logic and P!nk joining forces for a rap/pop version of the tune. The twosome takes the classic song and make it their own, entertaining the listener and offering hopes that the remainder of the CD will be as adventurous. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come to be as pretty much every other song on the disc holds close to the original renditions.

Coldplay’s “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” falls flat, never even coming close to inspiring the listener, but Alessia Cara attempts to redeem that performance with a well-done version of “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” Ed Sheeran turns “Candle in the Wind (2018)” into a folksy tune and Florence + the Machine hold serve with “Tiny Dancer.” Mumford & Sons (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) shows up for a so-so rendition before the top two performances take the CD.

Mary J. Blige demonstrates some very powerful vocals in tearing into “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and really does make the song hers. By far the top song on the album is the collaboration between rapper Q-Tip and Demi Lovato, who take the classic tune John performed with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and stand it on its head. Where the original tune was a piece of pop pablum, Q and Lovato turn it into a reggae/R&B mixed effort that comes off fabulously. Their approach wouldn’t have worked on any other song from the John/Taupin catalog, so it was outstanding that the right performers and song were matched up. Although Miley Cyrus (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and Lady Gaga (“Your Song”) cover their respective tunes admirably, the Killers (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”), Sam Smith (“Daniel”) and Queens of the Stone Age (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” possibly the worst effort on the CD), come up short on their work.

Revamp is devoid of the artists taking their chances at recreating John/Taupin classics. For the most part, they stuck to the material and, while enjoyable, I’d rather see them stretch a bit and attempt something new. This doesn’t make Revamp bad, it’s just it pales in comparison to its companion disc.

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Surprisingly, it is the country artists that take part in the tribute on Restoration that take the most chances in their interpretations of John & Taupin’s songs. From the start of the CD, with Little Big Town delivering a daring rendition of “Rocket Man,” the country artists seem to be more comfortable with deviating from the originals. The country artists also delve deeper into the John/Taupin catalog than the pop artists did.

Although there is a repeated song – Maren Morris’ OK version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – and a repeated artist – Miley Cyrus shows up again to give a so-so performance of “The Bitch is Back” – the other artists take some chances with some deep cuts from the John/Taupin catalog. The Brothers Osborne deliver a stunning rocking version of “Take Me to the Pilot” and country legend Willie Nelson contributes a well-done version of “Border Song,” but other artists stretch their legs.

This isn’t to say they all hit the mark. Don Henley and Vince Gill give up an uninspired version of “Sacrifice” and Lee Ann Womack’s start slow/finish strong version of “Honky Cat” are a bit of a disappointment, but they are more than made up in such choices as Miranda Lambert (“My Father’s Gun”), Chris Stapleton (“I Want Love”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Roy Rogers”). Two duets bear special mention because of their uniqueness, the Rhonda Vincent/Dolly Parton collaboration on “Please” and Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris’ stirring rendition of “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.”

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For its sheer daring and stylistic changes, Restoration comes out as the better CD than Revamp. It could have been for the fact that the pop singers weren’t as well versed in Elton John’s music or that they didn’t feel comfortable taking such songs and making them their “style.” It really seemed that the country artists understood John and Taupin’s works much better, displayed in the chances they took in song choices and the way they were performed. While you can’t go wrong with either one (nor the original Two Rooms…in fact, ownership of all three is well worth having in the catalog), it is clear to see that one is better than the other.

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So There’s No Good Music Anymore? You’re Not Looking Hard Enough

I’ve heard the argument since I worked in the radio business (a career that spanned three decades and various formats, I have to add). In discussion with fans of particular genres of music – whether it was rock, country, metal, etc. – the refrain was often “They don’t make music like they used to.” I often thought about that statement and came up with some reasons why people make that statement and/or believe what they’re saying.

For many, there is no better era for music than when they grew up. For Baby Boomers, the 1960s and its wide variety of genres (seriously, on the radio back then you could hear almost ANYTHING and often on one station) and the 1970s is what they look at as the epitome of the history of music. For Generation X (born in the early 1960s), the sounds from the 1980s and some of the 1990s is what captures their ears. For the Millennials, the late 90s/early Aughts is where music was cooking. What Generation Z – those that are currently in grade school – will be listening to is a huge guess. And if you want to reach back further than 50-60 years ago, there are those that consider the “Big Band” Era the shit and so on.

Failing that, people will often look towards their wild and crazy “single years” as THE time when music was great. Whether you were dancing in a disco, moshing in the pit or line dancing at a honkytonk, people will often equate music with when they were having their most enjoyable times. Ask any person and they will probably be able to put a soundtrack together that would tell the story of their lives better than any book or documentary could ever hope to achieve and a predominance of the music is probably from their young adult days.

Finally, there IS some credence that has to be given that music isn’t as good anymore, but it is more about the talent of the performers rather than what music they are presenting. For some of the greatest music in the history of mankind, one person sat down and put together EVERYTHING. They served as the writer, producer, performer and, if you really want to go back in time, seller of the music (you think Beethoven did his music for free?). Nowadays, the list of co-writers on a song can be as many as 10 different people and producers can reach nearly the same number. Then there’s the fact that performers don’t exactly “perform” live anymore…

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With this said, there’s plenty of music that is out there nowadays, people just aren’t looking hard enough for such gems. Normally people will not pay as much attention to music as they get older because the “acts of life” (working, taking care of the bills, children, etc.) become more significant rather than the “frivolity” of listening to music. Unless you actually are working in the music business, then it becomes more background noise than something that you actually are tremendously invested…but that can change.

I personally try to keep up on the new music out there and, as I’ve previously stated, there’s some good stuff out in the stores and on the airwaves (or the internet). I’ve spoken plenty of times about how good Florence + The Machine are and Bruno Mars is an outstanding performer, one that I’d definitely pay to see. If you don’t think there’s any good music out there, here’s some choices that run the gamut from pleasant and quiet to hard, heavy and raucous that you’re missing.

Halestorm

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There’s just something about a loud, thundering guitar and crushing bass notes that gets the blood pumping. I’ve personally always enjoyed hard rock/heavy metal (what some people consider “metal” is far from it, to be honest) and still do to this day. Halestorm, led by Lzzy Hale, is a band that you’re missing on big time if you haven’t checked them out.

Hale seems to firmly embrace the “rock and roll attitude,” but she’s also got the vocal and musical chops to stand on her own in front of the band. “I Like It Heavy” simply comes out and slugs you in the mouth, catching your attention from the start. At the very end, Hale’s almost church-choir sounding coda (of the studio version of the song) simply surprises you with its impact. Finally, anyone that can cover Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children” and pretty much equal Benatar’s voice is worth the price of admission.

(And, for a bonus, here’s Lzzy Hale wiping the stage with Eric Church at the CMT Music Awards.)

Leah Flanagan

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Flanagan is an Australian artist that received a great deal of support (re:  playing her music) on SiriusXM Radio Margaritaville (quite honestly, SiriusXM is a great spot to find new music that isn’t getting played on terrestrial radio) for her album Nirvana Nights and the tune “September Song.” Flanagan’s music is quite an eclectic mix of genres, all pulled together by her voice and lyrics. To my knowledge, she’s never has toured in the United States, a pity to be honest; she would bring a different style to the U. S. music scene.

Kacey Musgraves

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She may not be an artist that is hidden from the world, but Musgraves is one of the best country artists – hell, let’s go for it, overall artists – out there today (and that comes from someone who isn’t necessarily a country fan). A two-time Grammy winner, it just seems that nobody wants to give Musgraves the proper attention that someone of her talent deserves. Her album Same Trailer Different Park ran the gamut of musical stylings (my personal favorite, “Blowin’ Smoke,” had a definitive blues styling to it), which might keep her from being pigeonholed into the country genre.

Beyond that, Musgraves isn’t afraid to touch some sensitive issues with her music, something that country music isn’t known for. Questioning religion, acceptance and tolerance of gays and lesbians and drug usage are all subjects she’s touched on, rare in today’s music industry that prefers its artists to be sanitized (like the waste of space known as Taylor Swift) so little Suzie doesn’t get any wild ideas.

Blackberry Smoke

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If you prefer your rock n’ roll with a bit of a Southern flair, then this is the band for you. They do harken back to those 70s powerhouses like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot and they will get you tapping your foot. My personal favorite is the song, “Leave a Scar,” but also noteworthy are “Wish in One Hand” and “Six Ways to Sunday.”

Trombone Shorty

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For those of you who like your music instrumental, Trombone Shorty is someone to check out. From the melting pot that is New Orleans, Trombone Shorty combines musical styles like a delicious gumbo and the only thing that might stop your listening pleasure is getting too full of the funkiness. His biggest commercial success to this mark in his career is the song “Hurricane Season,” but there is plenty of other work that make him worth a listen. Like Musgraves, he’s young – only 30 (Musgraves is 27) – so we should be hearing from him for some time.

Rodrigo y Gabriela

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Acoustic guitar never sounded as good as when this Mexican duo pick them up. While Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero did stay pretty close to their Mexican roots with their breakthrough hit “The Soundmaker,” they will stretch out and incorporate other musical styles into their music. Of late, they have also been expanding to a full band outside of just their own guitars, so the future could be bright for this duo.

Gary Clark, Jr.

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Finally, if you have the desire to hear someone simply shred a guitar, Austin, TX’s Gary Clark, Jr., is the man. Long a mainstay of one of the most competitive music scenes in the world (Austin is PACKED with people that are or could easily have been the best in their respective fields of music), Clark broke through with his album Blak and Blu and the song “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round” that demonstrated the screaming power and skill of his guitar work. He also is an accomplished blues player, as recognized by his Grammy win in 2014 for Best Traditional R&B Performance.

Will these performers be recognized 25 years from now? Will they be forever ensconced in the hallowed halls of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland? Hell, nobody knows and that’s part of the fun. It is a thrill to simply enjoy the music and the ride and see where it takes us. So the next time you think that there’s “no good music” anymore, either take a listen to these artists or get out there and look for some on your own…the journey is definitely worth it!

2016 Grammys: Who Will Win? Who Should Win?

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By now, most of you might have learned something about my background. If not, for 20-odd years of my life I worked in the radio industry as a music director and DJ. I worked in pretty much every format that you could imagine and reached what was, at that time, one of the Top 75 markets in the United States in North Carolina, a pretty nice achievement. I was also reaching that age that, if you weren’t working as the program director, in other areas of station management or on the morning or afternoon drive teams, you weren’t going to be sticking around the industry for much longer. Thus came one day when I woke up and decided to move on rather than have the door hit me in the ass somewhere down the road.

The love affair that I’ve had with the Grammys dates back prior to my days in radio, back to my love for music overall (something else that I’ve written about here) in my youth. As I grew up, the artists that I saw on television or heard on the radio became the things that I looked for in the record stores and tried to learn about through other media. In doing this, I also learned to find out about new music and artists and try to figure out what would be the “next big thing” in music. When it became a career in radio, that love of music made it seem more fun than actually having a job could ever be.

Time has gone on and, even though I don’t have a radio job that requires that I know every intimate detail about an artist as I used to have to know, I still love the music industry. I’d go back on the radio – even satellite radio (a gig on Radio Margaritaville or some of the other channels on SiriusXM Radio would be nirvana) – in a heartbeat if someone offered me a gig. Thus, when Grammys Weekend rolls around, you know where I will be come Monday evening and the awards show.

The artists that are nominated this year aren’t necessarily my favorites – and one, Taylor Swift, I would rather listen to two cats fighting in a box made of chalkboards and filled with aluminum foil than listen to – but even now I am still knowledgeable about their work. Therefore, I’ve scanned the Crystal Ball to see who will win the Grammys for the biggest prizes of the night and I will also offer up who I believe should have won the Grammy. To be honest, sometimes the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) is completely off base, either going too artistic or not really honoring the best work from the year…more often, it’s not honoring the best work of the year!

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ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
1989, Taylor Swift
Traveller, Chris Stapleton
Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd

Who Should Win:  While I am partial to Alabama Shakes and Brittany Howard’s bluesy guitar and howling-wolf vocals, Lamar would be the best artistic choice out of this mix. Lamar’s album dominated the R&B charts for the year and “Alright” was an excellent tune. I could also go for Stapleton or The Weeknd…anyone but who will probably get it.

Who Will Win:  Swift was basically shut out of the Grammys last year as “Shake it Off” won her exactly ZERO awards. The problem here is that Alabama Shakes and Singleton are basically going to cut up one side of the vote – the “rocker” vote – and Lamar and The Weeknd are going to divvy up the R&B side of the equation. That leaves the lane wide open for Swift to slip through the cracks (and she can do that easy – I’ve seen more curves on a 2X4) and steal this award. It would also shut up her fan base that says the Grammys don’t “respect” her as an artist (there’s a reason for that…Swift ISN’T one!).

RECORD OF THE YEAR

“Really Love,” D’Angelo and the Vanguard
“Uptown Funk!” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
“Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran
“Blank Space,” Taylor Swift
“Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd

Who Should Win:  I said it when it came out that “Uptown Funk!” was one of the catchiest pieces of music that I’ve ever heard; for the Grammy voters not to recognize Ronson and Mars for their work here would be unforgiveable.

Who Will Win:  I think the Grammy voters will agree with me here. The only problem is that the song may have been too far back in memory for some to recall how good it was. I could see The Weeknd possibly taking this or, in a real surprise, Sheeran for his ballad (the Grammy voters do like themselves a ballad to vote for).

SONG OF THE YEAR

“See You Again,” Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth
“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar
“Girl Crush,” Little Big Town
“Blank Space,” Taylor Swift
“Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran

Who Should Win:  The song that got me this year was the Khalifa/Puth duet from the movie Furious 7. The song’s usage, coupled with the death of actor Paul Walker, made it a tremendously poignant song and one that had an impact on many people. It was such a heart-wrencher that, during the People’s Choice Awards, actor Vin Diesel broke into song – and tears – singing this song to honor Walker as he accepted the award for Best Film.

Who Will Win:  If he is overlooked on the Album of the Year race, this is where Grammy voters will try to make it up to Lamar. It is also possible that this could be said to Sheeran, too, should he not win Record of the Year.

BEST NEW ARTIST

Courtney Barnett
James Bay
Sam Hunt
Tori Kelly
Meghan Trainor

Who Should Win:  Tori Kelly has perhaps the richest voice that I’ve heard in quite some time. She’s probably going to be the artist that has the best career out of this bunch, but that doesn’t mean anything right now. This is a category that once honored A Taste of Honey over Elvis Costello and The Cars, remember that.

Who Will Win:  It’s Trainor’s award to lose. She’s by far had the most commercial success with “All About That Bass” and her debut album and she does bring that “doo wop meets hip hop” sound that Grammy voters think is so unique (sorry, my sarcasm monster escaped). There’s sometimes you shouldn’t combine musical genres and this is one of them.

BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM

Piece by Piece, Kelly Clarkson
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence + The Machine
Uptown Special, Mark Ronson
1989, Taylor Swift
Before This World, James Taylor

Who Should Win:  Readers will know that I have a tremendous admiration for Florence +The Machine and they should win this award hands down. How Big…, from start to finish, was the most complete work that the band has ever done and should be recognized (also wonder why it isn’t nominated in the Alternative category, but I digress). I’ve also enjoyed Clarkson for years, but this last album wasn’t her best work.

Who Will Win: Once again, if Swift doesn’t get any of the “big” awards, this would fall to her as a consolation prize. I could also see the Grammy voters pulling a fast one here, though.

James Taylor getting nominated in this category would be prime for one of those idiotic moments in Grammy history when someone is honored WAY past their prime (don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say Taylor’s latest album isn’t any good, it just isn’t his best work) for their career. Other examples of this would be Steely Dan’s 2001 Grammy win for Album of the Year for Two Against One (over more deserving subjects as Eminem, Paul Simon, Radiohead and Beck) and the inaugural Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental Grammy in 1989, which went to Jethro Tull over Metallica (still one of the greatest tragedies in Grammy voting).

BEST ROCK ALBUM

Chaos and the Calm, James Bay
Kintsugi, Death Cab for Cutie
Mister Asylum, Highly Suspect
Drones, Muse
.5:  The Gray Chapter, Slipknot

Who Should Win:  One of the breakout bands of 2016, Highly Suspect should be the ones who walk on the stage on Monday night to pick up this award. Other than Best New Artist, however, Grammy voters are wont to giving out accolades to newcomers (unless said newcomer just blows everyone out of the water); they are more apt to vote for those that have paid their dues in the business. Hence…

Who Will Win:  This is an easy one for Muse to take home. Although Drones is quite a distance from their best work (I’ve always been partial to The Resistance myself), Muse has put the required time in and it is their time to be rewarded. With only one Grammy win, Slipknot (2006 for Best Metal Performance for “Before I Forget”) might also be in the mix.

BEST ALTERNATIVE MUSIC ALBUM

Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
Vulnicura, Bjork
The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket
Currents, Tame Impala
Star Wars, Wilco

Who Should Win:  I have to admit, I haven’t given this band much of a listen, but many in the industry say that Tame Impala is one of the big up and comers in the Alternative scene. Perhaps when I see them come up on Sirius XM I’ll give them a stronger listen because, at this point, they really have failed to grasp my attention – but, then again, I might not be the audience that they are targeting!

Who Will Win:  Once again, we come back to one of those “if you don’t…/then you will…” situations. If Alabama Shakes doesn’t garner Album of the Year, this is going to be their consolation prize.

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BEST COUNTRY ALBUM

Montevallo, Sam Hunt
Pain Killer, Little Big Town
The Blade, Ashley Monroe
Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
Traveller, Chris Stapleton

Who Should Win:  In her sophomore effort, Musgraves has shown she is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the country music scene (and one of the few country artists that I like). She could have stuck close to what won her the Best Country Album Grammy in 2013 (for Same Trailer Different Park) but Musgraves instead chose to challenge herself by moving in a more artistic direction both lyrically and musically. In a genre that likes its artists to stay in their lanes, Musgraves is pretty refreshing.

Who Will Win:  Unfortunately for Musgraves, Stapleton is kind of unseating her in the “individuality” streak. A longtime bluegrass and country musician and writer who backed up such diverse artists as Adele and Brad Paisley and written songs with Peter Frampton, Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, Stapleton finally decided to step out from the shadows and show himself. The resulting effort was Traveller which, if it doesn’t garner any big awards, should see the country side of the aisle recognize his efforts at the minimum.

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So what do you see as the big awards for the Grammys come Monday night? Or will you even be watching? Who knows, we may see Lady Gaga, during her tribute to late, legendary David Bowie, actually come out dressed as the Thin White Duke himself!