It could be refreshing, but usually it’s a little frustrating. That’s what I felt when I heard a live version of Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years” that was a distinct departure from the original recording and from the song I heard the band play when I saw them in concert soon after the “Can’t Buy a Thrill” album. A tribute band could actually do a better job of getting the original presentation right.
It’s not always that songwriters get tired of playing the same songs in the same way night after night and are looking for a way to shake it up a little bit. Unlike artists who finish a painting and have a static accomplishment, music performers have an opportunity to continuously revise and improve upon their creation.
Songwriter and musician Charlie Parr expressed this idea very well in a recent interview on Red Line Roots.
“I write a song and it’s definitely one thing when I write it; it’s almost as though as soon (as I) perform it for someone else it’s another thing,” he told writer Ken Templeton. “I don’t regard songs as ever finished anymore; they’re never fully written; they keep getting rewritten every time I play them.”
I agree. It seems like after they’re born, songs can take on a life of their own, maturing and taking on new attributes.
Songs evolve. Once I record an original song I usually consider it finished, but I often have ideas about how I could improve it by changing some lyrics or singing it differently. For example, when I perform “Here Comes the Dawn” these days I sing a lower note at the end of the second line which I think makes the melody much more interesting.
In fact, my digital song file where I keep my song lyrics is titled “Works in Progress.”
Certainly singers covering a song can take liberties to suit their own unique styles. I can think of one good example, Carly Simon’s sweet cover Michael McDonald’s “It Keeps You Running.” I like her passionate rendition even more than McDonald’s soulful original.
And it’s not just the melody line that gets updated. There are even times when I’ve changed lyrics in a recorded song.
After one of my visits to Nashville and after meeting with pro songwriters for critiques of some of my music, I altered some of the words in the verses and chorus of “Gasoline.” I even introduce the song during live performances with a new title: “Octane On the Brain,” to reflect the new and improved chorus.
It’s not change for the sake of change. As I get older I’m not much a fan of that. But as I noted in my song “That’s Progress,” “Change is the only thing that never gonna change.”