The music industry today is built by a strong foundation of the live performance. Bands and artists that need to fight things like record low album sales depend on the popularity of their extraordinary live show to pull in new fans and continue to succeed as musicians. To create these mind-blowing concert moments, many bands of many shapes and sizes cater to the age-old tradition of the cover song: creating your own version of an already popular song and using it as your own performance asset. Thanks to the wonderful tools we have in our pockets (meaning the 16 megapixel cameras that shoot HD video and auto-upload to YouTube) these live performances have the ability to fall into our lap(top)s and let us live the magic from home. The hope is that the fans on the couch see these videos as a reason to buy albums and go to shows, but while they weigh their options they have these wonderful examples to bide their time. So if you’re looking for evidence of a band’s impressive live show past their own original back catalogues, check out these bands and artists that have included covers in their live sets and actually did the songs justice.
1. John Mayer and Keith Urban – “Don’t Let Me Down” (The Beatles, 1969 – Get Back – Single)
JayMay and Keith Urban most notably brought this track out for The Beatles’ 50th anniversary TV Special marking their appearance on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’. But the duo broke the song wide open at the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival, without facing time constraints that come with performing on live TV. The festival, which took place at Madison Square Garden, eventually saw its compilation-style release on DVD and vinyl and included this track along with myriad performances from many other artists.
2. Foo Fighters/Dave Grohl – “Band on the Run” (Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973 – Band on the Run)
The Foo Fighters have been known to cover this track on a couple of occasions, most notably with recorded versions appearing on both a BBC commemorative album celebrating rock n’ roll radio and the Foo’s vinyl-only covers album Medium Rare that saw release in 2011. My personal favorite version from the Dave Grohl camp actually does not include the Foo Fighters, but a live backing band during a White House performance honoring Paul McCartney. I know it technically isn’t the Foo Fighters, but the president was there so I think this one is forgivable.
3. The Orwells – “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (The Stooges, 1969 – The Stooges)
The Orwells make no secret of the fact that they like The Stooges. If the similar musical style, the raw live shows, or even the subtle resemblance between frontmen Iggy Pop and Mario Cuomo weren’t enough, then the Chicago garage punks went as far as to cover The Stooges in a large percentage of their live shows to prove just how into them they are. This video, taken from a show in London, features The Orwells at their finest; manic, intense, and loud.
4. St. Vincent – “Lithium” (Nirvana, 1991 – Nevermind)
St. Vincent frontwoman Annie Clark has gotten no shortage of press as of late after releasing her very impressive self-titled album this past winter. While touring the album, Clark and her band played Nirvana classic “Lithium” at a Chicago tour stop to pay tribute to the late Kurt Cobain as the 20th anniversary of his death neared. Although no high quality videos of the Chicago performance have surfaced, the cover was apparently so well done that the surviving members of Nirvana had Clark join them on stage for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance later that month.
5. Grouplove – “Party Hard” (Andrew W.K., 2001 – I Get Wet)
Andrew W.K.’s extreme party anthem was given the stripped-down acoustic treatment as an installment of media conglomerate The A.V. Club’s ‘Undercover’ series in 2012. Grouplove opted to pick this track, mimicking Andrew W.K.’s signature bloody nose in the process. The track has yet to make an appearance in Grouplove’s notoriously explosive set, which makes this intimate cover just that more special.
6. Miley Cyrus – “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” (Arctic Monkeys, 2013 – AM)
The former Disney star-turned pop behemoth took a stab at this song (among a few other choice covers) on her 2014 appearance on MTV Unplugged. Her almost jazzy performance of the Arctic Monkeys cut, including her own powerful take on Sheffield crooner’s Alex Turner’s vocal take, was so well received that Turner himself called it his favorite cover of any of the band’s songs. Check out the song below, but be warned it is sexual in a very classic Miley Cyrus type of way.
7. Wilco – “Cut Your Hair” (Pavement, 1994 – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
Wilco has proven over the years that they know how to rock the house, and they have also been known to break out a solid cover or two in their storied career. The one comes from their 2013 performance at Solid Sound, which actually ended up being an all covers set. You can check out the full setlist here, but this one stood out as one of the notable ones.
8. Wilco – “The Weight” (The Band, 1968 – Music From Big Pink)
If anyone deserves to be on this list twice, it would have to be Wilco. The band has established a long career of stellar covers, so even cutting it down to two is an accomplishment. This track comes as one of the best-known songs from The Band, a group whose early roots-rock had a strong influence on the Chicago six-piece. The video below actually comes from a backstage rehearsal with Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples before a 2011 gig in the Windy City.
9. The Raconteurs – “Crazy” (Gnarls Barkley, 2006 – St. Elsewhere)
Jack White, much like Wilco, is another performer who has become increasingly notable because of his wild cover songs. White, who most recently covered a couple of pop hits including Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”, has been following this trend for years, including with his band The Raconteurs at Lollapalooza 2006. Their take on the Cee-lo Green/Danger Mouse collaboration may start off a bit rusty, but turns into an even combination of grit and weird disco dance grooves.
10. Foster the People – “Say it Ain’t So” (Weezer, 1994 – Weezer)
Foster the People and Weezer had a really funny relationship just after FTP broke in 2011. After the breakout single “Pumped Up Kicks” was released, Weezer opted to cover it during one of their shows. As a response, Mark Foster and co. who were fresh on the festival circuit took notice and turned around to learn this 1994 classic from Weezer’s debut. If that doesn’t define musical bromance, I don’t know what does.