In some ways, Steve Conte is the quintessential rock and roll musician. He lives in New York City (well, he summers in the Netherlands with his wife’s family), has played with everyone from the New York Dolls to the late Willy DeVille, released his own work, and is an unabashed admirer of rock and roll in all its many forms and genres. The latter fact is made completely obvious by the choice of material on his latest CD, International Cover Up.
As the title suggests, the disc’s eight tracks are all covers. The international bit of the title comes from the fact he recorded it in Holland with his European touring band – save for the solo acoustic versions of “Play with Fire” and “Working Class Hero” which were recorded in NYC. Now, I’m not normally one for cover albums (I think the last one I liked was David Bowie’s Pin Ups) but this recording is an exception.
Not only does Conte manage to invest each song with his passion and enthusiasm for rock and roll, he brings his own interpretations to each of the tracks. However, this doesn’t mean he ignores the original recording; he is, after all, honouring the folks who first brought the songs to our attention. What he does is use their versions as a springboard for creating something which combines his talent for performance and their songwriting.
What I also like about this disc is his choice of material. Instead of songs people are going to be automatically familiar with, he’s selected tracks which are from all over the rock and roll canon. For example, the first selection is an older, and I mean 1960s (not 1970s Rumours era) Fleetwood Mac tune, “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight”. Now I don’t know the original, but Conte and company play this as the hard rock song the title implies and makes it work.
That’s the other thing about Conte. The fun he has playing music – any music – is damn infectious. Even the harder stuff I wouldn’t normally enjoy, like the aforementioned Fleetwood Mac cover, he makes hard to resist. He and his band – Jeroen Polderman drums and Jozz Verhijen bass – are having such an obvious good time, it’s nearly impossible not to be swept up in the moment.
However, what really blew me away about this release was his cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. Now I’ve heard just about everybody cover this tune from Marianne Faithful to bar bands and I’ve yet to hear someone do as good a job as Conte. Sparse, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he allows the words to speak for themselves. Imbuing them with the right level of scorn and anger, he allows the underlying pathos of the song to be heard.
Being a long time lover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street album, his inclusion of “Happy” from that release was greatly appreciated. For some reason, even though it was one of their most critically acclaimed releases, the songs from this album don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Conte’s version captures the rawness and energy of the original and is a reminder of what made Exile such a great disc.
It was also nice to see he included fellow New Yorker, the late, Willy DeVille’s “Venus of Avenue D”. What’s nice about Conte’s version is that he manages to capture its spirit without being a slave to the original version. Those familiar with DeVille’s style will hear echoes of how he performed it, but they’ll also notice how Conte has expanded on that base to give the song new depth.
It takes a special calibre of rock and roll musician to pull off an album of cover tunes – somebody whose love of the material and love of the music allows that person to throw his or her body and soul into the songs. Like an actor who brings a new interpretation to a much loved role, musicians have to be willing to surrender themselves to the original writer while still finding a way to bring something of themselves to the material. Steve Conte is one of those rare musicians who can do this, and International Cover Up is a sheer listening pleasure for that reason.