Friday, August 15, 2014

Battle of the Bands: "Higher Ground"

Today is August 15th -- that means it's time for the "Battle of the Bands (BOTB)."  This is a fun blogging event that allows people to discover, discuss, and dissect music.  It was originally started by Stephen T. McCarthy and FarAwayEyes back in August of 2013, and occurs twice every month -- on the 1st and the 15th. Each of the bloggers taking part offers their  readers a choice of two (or occasionally more) versions of the same song, performed by different recording artists. And then the readers get to vote for their favorite rendition.

But -- as has been known to happen -- I haven't been able to post in a while, so before I go on to today's battle, I still have to give the results from my LAST Battle of the Bands post.

8/1/2014 BOTB Results

The last battle featured two versions of "Sensitive Kind" -- by Santana and by the original composer, JJ Cale. It started out looking like it was going to be a run-away by Santana, but eventually enough JJ Cale votes trickled in to make it competitive.  I understand the appeal of Santana's version -- it's got a lot going for it, and I do enjoy it. It's a great rendition with powerful singing and Santana's powerful guitar playing.

But here's the thing -- in my opinion, this song isn't meant to be powerful.  It's a song about sensitivity, compassion, and gently making a sensual connection with a woman who's been burned before. There's no call for screaming guitars or vocals in this song. I just think the song works so much better when it's soft and understated, and JJ's version delivers that. 

So I vote for JJ, not that it matters.  In the end, Santana's power overcomes, and he wins by a narrow majority, with 7 votes to JJ's 6.

However, if you're interested, HERE's a video of JJ Cale performing the song live at Carnegie Hall, during the band's tour in 1996.  The video production is a little distracting, but this gives a great example of how sensual this song can be, and just how well JJ did it without all the studio orchestration.

Now Let the NEW Battle Begin!

Today again, I have another song that I like BOTH versions of -- I think these make for the best battles.  And this is another bout where I'm eager to see what YOU think!

In 1973, Stevie Wonder released his 16th studio album, Innervisions, three days before he was nearly killed while riding in a car that collided with a log-carrying truck. The album had several hits, including "Living for the City", "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing", and the first song released, "Higher Ground."

"Higher Ground" was preformed entirely by Stevie -- he sang and played all the instruments including drums, with a bass line done on an early Moog synthesizer.  The beat is infectious and funky; the groove smooth and steady; the playing impeccable; and the lyrics spiritual and optimistic, seeking growth even amid lines of war and lying politicians. It is a song that gets you moving -- both dancing AND thinking.

Here's the original, as recorded by Stevie Wonder:

In 1989, The Red Hot Chili Peppers recovered from singer Anthony Kledis's rehab, the departure of drummer Jack Irons, and the overdose death of guitarist Hillel Slovak to record their fourth album, "Mother's Milk."  With new drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante, the album had much more commercial success than their previous ones, lifted in part by MTV's heavy rotation of their cover of "Higher Ground."

Where the Stevie Wonder version was smooth keyboard-driven funk, the Peppers took that funk, kicked it in the ass, and merged it with Punk attitude, Rock drums, hard-edged distorted guitars, and Flea's throbbing, pulsating bass playing.  The Chili Peppers were no strangers to funk -- George Clinton had produced the band's second album, "Freaky Styley" in 1985. But while Stevie Wonder's funk tickled your heart, the Peppers punched you in the gut with it.

Here's the RHCP version of "Higher Ground:"

Your Vote

So which appeals to you more? Smooth and funky, or hard-edged and funky? Do you like your funk groove straight, or do you want it mixed with equal parts punk and rock?

I invite you to listen to each version and give them a chance. And try not to focus on the video images (close your eyes if you must) -- the battle is about the music, not the video production.

After listening, please vote in the comments as to which version you think is best, or which speaks to you the deepest. Feel free to also share as much as you would like about how any of the above recordings strike you, even if it's less than positive.

Then -- be sure to check out the other BOTB bloggers to vote on their battles:

Thank you very much for listening and for voting -- come back and visit again the end of next week to find out how the voting has gone.  I'll make a post then with my own vote and also announce the winner.

And in the meantime -- be sure to keep on reachin' for that higher ground!


  1. I'm gonna have to stick with Stevie Wonder, not that Red Hot Chili Pepper (BTW, your YouTube video won't load) did a b ad job or anything. It's just I like the original version the best. Joining the BOTB for the first time today. I hope you'll decide to visit my link up at #BOTB: Last Kiss

    1. Thanks, Cathy! That's one vote for Stevie. I've also updated the broken link to the RHCP video and added your blog to the list of BOTB participants. I'll be sure and visit ASAP!

  2. I'm not a Chili Peppers fan, although they did a good job with the song. Gave it some extra energy. However, I'll stick with the Stevie Wonder version.

    1. Well, I do admit I'm surprised, Alex -- I thought the guitar-driven energy might have swayed you. But I do understand, and no vote for Stevie Wonder is EVER a wrong vote. That's now two votes for the original.

  3. That's a good pairing.

    RHCP makes a good stab at this song, but it's a little raucous for me first thing in the morning. Maybe at another time I'd prefer their version--like if I was cruising the open road in the middle of the desert.

    In the end though this song is still Stevie's. I like his style, instrumentation and vocals. Wonder is wonderful and he's hard to beat in his own game (and song).

    I vote Stevie Wonder big time.

    Tossing It Out

    1. Actually, I'm starting to think it might not have been such a good pairing. There are not many Stevie Wonder songs I'd put in a Battle of the Bands, simply because I'd expect him to blow away most competitors. But this is one where I thought that might not happen. Now it's beginning to look like I may have been wrong...

      Right now, it's Stevie 3, RHCP 0

      But who knows? Will any rockers show up to give the Peppers a vote???

  4. CHRIS ~
    First, I want to say how pleased I am that you are joining us BOTBers regularly now. You bring a lot of musical knowledge and ideas to it.

    Before I even listened to today's BOTB lineup, I watched and listened to the live J.J. Cale version of 'Sensitive Kind' and I liked it. I liked the studio recording a great deal, too. What you said about the song's presentation made a lot of sense [" my opinion, this song isn't meant to be powerful."]

    Is it too late for me to change my vote from Santana to Cale?

    Not that I have any intention whatsoever of changing it, but I'd just like to know if I could have, if I would have. (Yeah, I can be a smart-ass, but you'll get used to me. Heck, my smart-assedness might even grow on you eventually... like a "skin tag" on a geriatric person.)

    OK, on to today's 'BOTB' installment...

    I think 'INNERVISIONS' was Stevie Wonder's greatest album. And I have very little use for The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Need I say more? ...Alright, I will:

    My best friend, Marty, was killed by a car thief in 1989. He and I used to make compilation cassettes of music for each other. On one cassette he included the songs 'All In Love Is Fair' and 'Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing'. Both, of course, came from 'Innervisions', and I loved them both. (I still play the latter one on Marty's birthday and deathday.)

    Then sometime later he made another cassette for me titled 'ODE TO STEPHEN T. McCARTHY'. These were songs that he felt described me in certain ways. One one side he included the 'Innervisions' song 'HE'S MISSTRA KNOW-IT-ALL' (Marty, that S.O.B.!) And on the other side he recorded Simon And Garfunkel's 'I AM A ROCK' - over and over and over again. The entire side of the tape was nuttin' but 'I AM A ROCK' for 30 minutes (the S.O.B.!) Ha!-Ha! It still makes me laugh.

    But anyway, when I came to realize that all three of those Stevie Wonder songs came from the very same album, 'Innervisions', I went out and bought it, and I have the compact disc version of it to this day.

    Ain't no way The Red Hot Chili Peppers were going to get my vote on this song. Not for sentimental reasons, and not even for musical reasons.

    As a side note, I like Stevie's reference to reincarnation in 'Higher Ground'. It's a concept I believe in, it's a concept I believe is Biblical (if one is willing to see it in the words of Jesus Christ). I believe Stevie Wonder even attributed his blindness to a karmic lesson from a previous incarnation.
    ("I'm so darn glad He let me try it again / 'Cause my last time on Earth I lived a whole world of sin / I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then / Gonna keep on tryin' / Till I reach the highest ground")

    Interesting 'Battle Of The Bands' entry. Put me down for another WONDER(ful) vote.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

    1. D-Doggin' StevieMacDaddy, I already KNEW you were a smart ass! That's part of the reason I like ya. ;)

      Thanks for giving JJ some of your all-too-brief time on this planet, my friend. And I have no problem at all with you changing your vote. You can vote and re-vote as many times as you want, especially if you're comin' over to my side of the vote. Heck -- even if you're disagreein' with me, I'll allow it.

      'Course, I ain't making any changes to old posts, but you're absolutely allowed to continue to comment and vote on 'em 'til the cows come home.

      (Now who's the smart ass?)

      Great story about your old friend -- I'm sorry to hear about his death (and in the same year as the RHCP recorded their version of this song, too). I loved the "I Am a Rock" repeat on the backside of the cassette. That made me smile. Sounds like a funny and clever guy.

      And I absolutely get the love and respect for Stevie and "Innervisions" It's one of my favorite albums too. Most people go for "Songs in the Key of Life" but I think Innervisions is actually a bit better.

      Hmmm... Reincarnation as Biblical? Interesting. Well, there is the whole "born again" thing, but I'm not sure that's exactly the same thing. I'm going to have to stew on that one a while...

      But as always -- thanks for the insights, the smiles, and for gettin' me thinking

    2. Oh, and the sweep gathers momentum:

      --Stevie 4, Peppers 0

  5. Another song I really like. At least the version by Stevie. Not into that Punk and Grind thing at all. Give my vote to Mr.Wonder(ful).

    1. OK. For all their energy, the RHCP's don't seem like their going to reach any higher ground this day...

      -- Stevie 5, Peps 0

  6. While I liked what the RHCP's did with this song, I've got to go with Stevie....I am a sucker for the Motown sound, and his version had a twenty year head's kind of iconic.

    1. Sometimes a long gap is helpful to help dilute the old song in the public's consciousness -- or at least the record-buying public. But we BOTBers are mostly all "of a certain age," so perhaps our consciousness is expanded a bit, and Stevie's still solidly in there...

      -- Stevie 6, RHCP 0

  7. I know both versions well. It's Stevie's song, man. But it was close.

    1. Thanks for at least saying it was close -- This has turned out to be one a clear one-sided BOTB trouncing. :) But that's ok. Stevie always deserves to win.

    2. ...and that brings it to Stevie 7, RHCP 0

  8. I wasn't familiar with this song, but what can I say? Leave to the old gal to vote for the Chili Peppers. (Go figure.)

    By the way, I answered those questions from the virtual tour thingie you passed to me on my post today. (Thanks again!)

    1. Say wha?!?! Well, I'm glad I exposed you to a really great song! You should check out the whole "Innervisions" album if you enjoyed it. Also -- yay, my rocker-friend Susan! IT's no longer an embarrassing shut-out for the Chili Peppers!

      -- Stevie 7, RHCP 1

      And thanks for taking part in the Virtual tour -- I visited your blog and REALLY enjoyed your post, Susan!

  9. It is hard to beat the original. The RHCP did a great version, took a different approach. However, Stevie's version still prevails.

    1. And another "close, but not nearly close enough" sentiment for the Peppers...

      -- Stevie 8, RHCP - 1


Don't be shy -- feel free to comment. I really appreciate your thoughts.