Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Battle of the Bands: "Billie Jean"

It's October 15th, time once again for the "Battle of the Bands (BOTB)," the blogging event originally started by Stephen T. McCarthy and FarAwayEyes back in August of 2013. It occurs twice every month -- on the 1st and the 15th -- and is a fun way to share and discuss music. 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 the readers get to vote for their favorite rendition.

Last Time, I chose The Last Time and focused on legal battles over copyrights and a controversy about how an original song can maybe really be an unoriginal cover.

Today, I'm staying away from controversy and just offering two covers of a very well-known song -- with both of them done live. I think each version brings some unique elements to the song, and I'm curious to see what everyone thinks.  Plus I'm hoping to again introduce you to a musician you might not be familiar with.

And as a side note -- even though the original song was released in the '80's, this battle features two versions that have both been recorded in THIS century!  That's kind of unique for us BOTB bloggers, lol!

Let the Battle Begin!

In January, 1983, Michael Jackson released the second single from his all-time sales-leading Thriller album: "Billie Jean." It reached #1 in many countries and has sold a gazillion copies.  It's an extremely popular song and is so well-known that it would likely win against almost any cover version.

And there's a ton of cover versions out there.  Besides the original by Michael Jackson and his live performance of it from Motown 25 that introduced the Moonwalk to the world, there's a dark acoustic version by Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, a version played on guitar by a young Korean (with over 25 million views),  a fun one by The Bottle Boys, a cool creative drum/keyboard choreographed version by duo M. Henry/J. Robinett, a soulful version by one-man band Scott Dunbar, and an almost endless supply of others.  I could probably do BOTB posts only on Billie Jean for the next ten years and not run out of material.

However that's not really my desire.  I like the song well enough, but as with my BOTB posts featuring Concrete Jungle and Ode to Billy Joe, I've got a specific artist in mind that I want to highlight more-so than the song.  In fact, I only decided on Billie Jean for this battle because I started with the artist and searched for cover songs that he'd done.

So let's start with his version of the song...

But first -- If I mention "pedal-steel guitar" to you, what do you think of?  If you're familiar at all with the instrument, you might go with the traditional playing in country songs. Or maybe something like the country-ish pedal-steel parts played by Jerry Garcia in Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Teach Your Children Well."

If that country  music sound is all you think of, you've probably never heard of Robert Randolph. Robert's approach to pedal-steel is a little different than the traditional country one. Having started in the 'Sacred Steel' Christian gospel music tradition, Randolph brings a lot of soul to his pedal-steel playing, and he melds it with blues, rock, and jazz influences. Take a listen to his instrumental rendition of "Billie Jean" from 2004, recorded live for a European TV show, and see what you think:

If you like this, I heartily encourage you to check out some of his other work, like a newer 2013 single, a sadly under-heard rockin' single from 2006, an awesome cut from his 2004 Austin City Limits performance with Luther Dickenson, a gospel-like 2010 performance at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival, Robert doing Hendrix in 2013 in a jazz setting as part of a Les Paul tribute night, or any of a long list of his other You Tube videos.  You can also visit his official website to learn more.

Next, it's time for the competitor:

When I was searching for a worthy adversary for Robert Randolph, I first thought of featuring Chris Cornell or the young Koren guitarist I mentioned above.  But then I ran across another cover of this song by the highly-acclaimed-but-now-defunct duo, The Civil Wars. I'd heard some of their Grammy-winning work before and have been struck by the amazing interplay of their vocals. I'd seen "Poison and Wine", really liked "Barton Hollow", and thought "The One That Got Away" was haunting and powerful.  But I hadn't really heard them live and in this performance I was taken by how much fun they seem to be having doing this 2011 version of Billie Jean.  It's a radical contrast to their brooding songs and their tension-filled collaboration and eventual breakup. Have a listen:

Your Vote

So now it's your turn:Which version of Billie Jean do you like better? The rockin' instrumental one with the great pedal-steel playing by Robert Randolph, or the sparse and fun acoustic version with the wonderful harmonizing by The Civil Wars?

I invite you to listen to both version and give them each a chance. And try not to focus on the video images too much (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 -- afterwards, 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 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 careful what you do; don't go around breakin' young girls' hearts....


  1. Yes, I did participate today!
    I like Randolph's take on the song. Will check out some of his other stuff.
    Ever hear Alien Ant Farm's rendition of Jackson's Smooth Criminal? It's pretty cool.

    1. Cool Alex! I liked the BOTB pairing you put together.

      Glad you liked Robert Randolph. And I have heard that version -- it is cool.

      -- Robert Randolph 1; Civil Wars 0

  2. CHRIS ~
    Hot damn, man! That Robert Randolph cover was freakin', friggin' fantastic! And I never would have heard it if you weren't participating in 'BOTB' because I really do not keep up with current musicians. Honestly, I didn't think anyone was playing that kind of music anymore.

    Generally, I am a "Music First, Vocals Second" kind of guy. By that statement you KNOW I'm a Jazz freak, right? (I realize that many people can't seem to fully appreciate music that is strictly instrumental, but a significant amount of my CD music collection is precisely THAT.) On top of that, you could put an electric organ on just about anything and win my vote (my very favorite musical instrument), and when the dude can play it as well as that cat does... well... my vote's in the bag.

    The Robert Randolph cover was great in every conceivable way! ALL of the musicians were tight 'n' funky. [An aside: This is going to seem sappy but... I always like it when I see a great biracial band because I love seeing how music can unite us. This Robert Randolph guy, Booker T. & The MGs, Dylan's various bands,and many more have always given me hope for civilization.]

    The Civil Wars cover wasn't bad but it got eliminated from consideration within one minute of the actual playing. Indeed, they seemed to be having a fun time on stage and they'd probably be a good band to see live, but that minimalist rendition had no chance against the outstanding instrumental by Robert Randolph's band.

    Thanks for making me aware of such a fantabulous newer band.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

      I want to add that when I first saw which song you were using my initial thought was: Oh, no, not THAT! (I was never a Michael Jackson fan, and didn't particularly like that song, either.)

      So I clicked the video to play and started scrolling down to see what else you'd written and offered in this 'BOTB'. But I didn't get very far before I realized how good Robert Randolph's band was, and I immediately scrolled back up to the video again because I wanted to SEE them performing this. That's how impressed I was with R.R.'s version.

      ~ D-FensDogg
      'Loyal American Underground'

    2. I'm very glad you liked Robert Randolph -- I hope you checked out some of his other stuff. That Austin City Limits performance of "Squeeze" is awesome. Bluesy, jazzy, rockin, and filled with some great playing -- sounds a lot like the Allman Brothers at points.

      I had you in mind when I put this BOTB together -- I figured you would like RR, and I absolutely knew you really dig the organ playing on that "Billie Jean." It was a really good performance, although I do kind of scratch my head at the European audience just standing there like statues. This is music that should absolutely get your ass a movin'!!!

      And I do get what you mean about feeling good about integrated bands and how music that unites is a tremendously positive thing.

      Glad you enjoyed this battle, even if the song might not have been one that you expected. ;)

      -- Robert Randolph 2; Civil Wars 0

    3. >>... This is music that should absolutely get your ass a movin'!!!

      You got that RIGHT!

      Haven't had any time to check out anything else yet (and haven't been sleeping well - it's a "graveyard shi(f)t" thang), but I intend to later.

      Right now though I hear my bed calling my name.
      I hope... Sleep Happens.

      ~ D-FensDogg
      'Loyal American B-3 Fan'

  3. StMc said this above: Generally, I am a "Music First, Vocals Second" kind of guy.

    I think of myself as being a "Vocals First, Music Second" kind of gal. hahahaha. I also love The Civil Wars - at least, everything I've heard of theirs, which is not all that extensive compared to some other bands. So, I thought I would vote for them prior to listening to either.

    StMc's vote for RR was in the bag on this one. You knew that, right????

    Now I bet you think I am going to vote for The Civil Wars... and if this vote were about contrariness I just might. I still like The Civil Wars and their version, and wouldn't mind listening to it again (and again). I think their harmonies are outstanding. I wasn't aware that they broke up... That makes me sad.

    BUT, even though I am not a big fan of instrumentals... that first song was !Wow! It was a musical feast. I can't not vote for it. So, Robert Randolph. (I do believe you made your point;)

    1. LOL -- I figured StevieMac might lean towards RR over the Civil Wars. ;)

      And truthfully, I figured you for a vote for The Civil Wars. It is a really, really good performance -- I love their voices and their harmonies. I knew that some people would appreciate RR, but I didn't expect a one-sided battle. But I totally understand -- I think one of the benefits of this instrumental (besides the wonderful playing) is that everyone knows the song so well, they can sing the lyrics in their head while listening. ;)

      -- Robert Randolph 3; Civil Wars 0

  4. Robert Randolph definitely has a unique approach to the pedal steel, I'll give him that, and his version was good. But the Civil Wars' version made my day. I'm voting for that one.

    John Holton
    The Sound Of One Hand Typing

    1. And John prevents the shut-out! Thanks for voting. And it is a really, really good vocal performance. I can't sing to save my life and I'm always awed and amazed when I see such vocal talents,

      -- Robert Randolph 3; Civil Wars 1

  5. The version by Civil Wars was nice. Very, very nice.

    But for me the Randolph version wins. That band really cooks up a good musical stew.

    Tossing It Out

    1. I agree -- but I also think there's no "wrong" vote here. Both are great performances, for totally different reasons.

      -- Robert Randolph 4, Civil Wars 1

  6. Oh my God-this is like apples and oranges. They are both brilliant in their rendering. I dislike Michael Jackson and never liked this song until now. There is no ooh and ugh sounds and no crotch grabbing-so wonderful. This is too hard.....I love the guitar and instrumentals of the Randolph version-so great but I have to go with the Civil Wars. They made this song into a ballad and I think it works well as a ballad actually. The song should be more of a ballad. Their voices are clear and true. Shame they broke up. I am going to listen to another of their now

    1. The best battles are ones where it's the hardest to pick. ;)

      I liked the Civil Wars. And I hope they go on to more good stuff. Joy Williams had earlier success and had like 8 or more records, and several Dove Award nominations, so I know we'll see her again. JP White probably also. They are both very talented.

      -- Robert Randolph 4, Civil Wars 2

  7. Hey Chris!

    My dad always wanted to be a rock n' roll star in his young, rebellious years. Sadly, that did not work out for him - but he used a pedal steel guitar until he died a couple years ago. I've always loved the sound. He did play it in his gospel music also.

    The Civil Wars version was fun, and I would have enjoyed it out at the lounge. But I loved all the differing instruments in Robert's version, so Robert gets my vote. Now I think I'll go listen to some more of his sounds.

    1. Very cool, Donna! I enjoyed learning that about your father.

      And that's another solid vote for Robert Randolph:

      -- Robert Randolph 5, Civil Wars 2

  8. I am a big Randolph fan, so this one is no contest.

    The Civil Wars version was an interesting listen, but I found myself waiting for it to end (similar experience with their CD), but Randolph's version cooks.

    So Robert Randolph and The Family Band it is!

    1. It cooks indeed! Thanks, Larry!

      -- Robert Randolph 6, Civil Wars 2


  9. both great, both done by very talented musicians, my vote is for Randolph!

    1. I agree, Mike!

      -- Robert Randolph 7, Civil Wars 2


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