When I was learning how to play guitar, I played a lot of Nirvana. Part of that was the timing — I was born in 1983 and picked up the instrument in middle school. The other part was the songs’ simplicity. Power chords, power chords, and more power chords. Three notes at a time? I could handle that. In fact, my first band was a duo that played pretty much nothing but Nirvana and Foo Fighters (we never made it out of my friend’s basement, but some glorious noise was made).
The irony is that while Nirvana may be perfect fodder for beginner guitarists, they’re an incredibly difficult band to cover. People do it, and some do it well, but it’s a tall order. That’s because both ends of the faithful-inventive cover continuum are boobytrapped. If you try to perform “Scentless Apprentice” exactly like Nirvana did, chances are you’re never going to match the throat-tearing, cymbal-smashing, strangely disaffected intensity of the original. Missing by just a little — not giving enough or screaming like an unhinged maniac — holds dire consequences (“dire” may be a bit overdramatic — you’d just be stuck with a smattering of awkward, tepid applause). Just as perilous is the idea of tinkering with a Nirvana song to put your own stamp on it. There’s a paradoxical quality to the emotional impact Cobain’s songs had. While the feelings he expressed were nuanced, with shades of depression, alienation, sarcasm and anger, his delivery was extremely visceral. Primal. Hovering just north of the human-subhuman dividing line. So jazzing up a Nirvana song — pouring intellect into something that’s nearly bestial — risks overcomplicating beauty that originated in a more basic place.
It’s a tiny sweet spot to hit, which is why Charles Bradley’s cover of “Stay Away” strikes me as so special.
I knew soul was messy, but I hadn’t seen firsthand how beautiful and messy it could be until last week’s Friday Cheers.
Rain fell all day long, leaving the ground on Brown’s Island a soupy wreck, and when Mrs. YHT and I finally walked across the pedestrian bridge onto Brown’s Island — we’d spent the preceding half hour in the car, delaying our inevitable drenching — I did not expect that the show would actually happen. The original start time had lapsed and the entrance fee had been waived, yet I didn’t see a single spectating soul until the front edge of the stage was in view. There, a dozen or so umbrellas were huddled, the people under them watching Charles Bradley’s backing band — in this context you’d call them Bradley’s “Extraordinaires,” but without Bradley they’re known as Menahan Street Band — tune up. (I imagined that the band was having their own version of the “Is this thing actually going to happen?” conversation.)
Some friends had taken refuge under an unused radio station canopy across from the beer truck, and we joined them and learned that (good news) people were being allowed backstage, but (bad news) Bradley was rumored to be held up in traffic. We didn’t go backstage, but amazingly, just a short time later, we heard Bradley’s Extraordinaires playing what sounded like organized notes, and a few instrumental numbers later (“Summer In The City” being one) there he was. The Victim of Love. The Original Black Swan. The One and Only Screaming Eagle of Soul. (His extended intro, voiced by the band’s keys player, was a show unto itself. It felt more like a wrestling introduction, like how Paul Bettany introduced Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.)
The rest of the evening was pure magic. The band sounded great, Bradley’s voice was every bit the wonder I’d hoped it would be, and the small group of us that crowded the gravely area near the stage made enough noise for an audience 10 times our size. And while the music was outstanding (the rendition of “Confusion” embedded above was a personal favorite), what Bradley did between songs was most memorable.