Covering another artist's hits can be a tricky business. If you simply mimic their performance, you invite the wrath of those who have made a fetish of the original, while leaving yourself open to the question of why you bothered in the first place. Who after all needs a cheap imitation? If you make the song your own, you will still rile the fetishists, and you may or may not come up with something to compete with the original. Still if you do come up short, you will at least have failed on your own merits. The choice seems obvious; the only question is how far from the original should you stray.
In an interview on the Canadian talk show, Paul Simon was asked about why he chose Aretha Franklin's cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" for his new album Songwriter. His answer was that the singer's soulful rendition was as good as "Artie's." She didn't copy; she created, and she won a Grammy for it. The greatness of her performance was that she honored the song as a work of art with more than one possible interpretation.
ZZ Top: A Tribute from Friends is an album filled with the kinds of covers that honor the work of "that little old band from Texas," honor it with performances that may not make you forget the originals, but might have you saying they were as good as Frank's and Billy's and Dusty's. The "friends" featured on the disc are a mixed bunch of some of the finest on the contemporary scene and represent a wide range of musical genres from as far apart as Wyclef Jean and Jamey Johnson. And if Jean's "Rough Boy" may be a bit too mannered for some tastes, Johnson does a job on "La Grange" that is eight minutes of rocking power. He takes the song to another level. It probably didn't hurt that Billy Gibbons is sitting in with guitar and vocals.
Of the eleven tracks on the album, some stay closer to home, some stray further away, but each and every one sheds some new light on the band's musical genius. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals deliver a "Tush" with a whole new point of view (talk about sexy). Filter's "Gimmie All Your Lovin'" is a roaring re-imagination of the classic all their own as is Duff McKagen's Loaded's lowdown "Got Me Under Pressure." Daughtry handles the combined "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago" with style. Mick Fleetwood, Steven Tyler, John McVie, and Jonny Lang, calling themselves The M.O.B., get together to open the album with an all star stab at "Sharp Dressed Man" that has some really nice energy. Nickelback's "Legs" does full justice to the classic. Mastodon's "Just Got Paid," Coheed and Cambria's "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" and "Cheap Sunglasses" by Wolfmother round out the album. There isn't a loser in the bunch.
The story told about the band's reaction to the idea of the album is that when the ZZ Top triumvirate was told that a tribute album was in the works, they asked, "Who are we paying tribute to?" How's that for modesty? Want more? "Then we found out that a bunch of great artists were paying tribute to us and we were in disbelief. For the past 40 or so years, all we've done is get out there and crank it and try to have a good time while doing so. . . . Now comes A Tribute From Friends and we're so delighted that our music resonates with these great musicians whom we so admire."
ZZ Top has been cranking it out and having a good time. The Friends playing their tributes cranked it out and had a good time. Listen to the CD; you may not crank it out, but you'll have one hell of a good time.