Bob Seger has written some great originals, but his true talent is as an interpreter of other writer’s material. There is no shame in this, nor do I dismiss Rockin’ Robert as a writer. I simply believe that Bob’s best moments come when he’s fronting a band of ace players, collaborating with the muse of other artists, giving them voice and energy. I’ve been critical of my Michigan home-slice in the past, but now that he’s retired I find myself enjoying his music more and more – particularly his covers. Let’s give a listen to ten of my favorites.
“If I Were a Carpenter” – Tim Hardin
from the 1972 album Smokin’ O.P.s
Skip Knape on the organ. Skip Knape. No, seriously, this has to be one of the great rock organ tracks of all time. And Bob has never been in better voice than on this recording. Hardin played it at Woodstock and the Four Tops took it into the top 20, but for me Seger owns this one.
“I’ve Been Workin'” – Van Morrison
from the 1973 album Back in ’72
“By one of my main men, Mr. Van Morrison.” While I love Bob’s R&B studio version on Back in ’72, this is undeniably a potion best enjoyed live. This quintessential version from 1975’s Live Bullet is more of a rock take, but the Silver Bullet Band keeps it super funky.
“Nutbush City Limits” – Tina Turner
from the 1975 album Beautiful Loser
“Shit I’ve known that for 10 years!” It’s gotta be the Live Bullet version of “Nutbush.” I do love the gutsier studio version on Beautiful Loser. But from “Hey Detroit” to the classic keyboard riffing, this was a great live performance captured in a magic moment. And the heavy snare is still prominent, as on the studio version. Bob does Tina proud.
“Come to Poppa” – Willie Mitchell
from the 1976 album Night Moves
This album brought Bob nationwide chart success. While never released as a single, “Poppa” featured the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and remained a staple of Bob’s live set throughout his career. It was definitely a highlight at Pine Knob in June of 2019 on his final tour. Interestingly, it appeared in an episode of the the first season of Miami Vice. Perhaps that explains this fan-made video.
“Shame on the Moon” – Rodney Crowell
from the 1981 album The Distance
This song doesn’t suck half as much as I thought it did when The Distance was released in ’81. I was disappointed when Seger veered toward the middle of the road, but this Rodney Crowell-penned fireside ballad holds up well. “Shame” was great for Bob’s range and features a subtle abstract poetry that eluded him as a writer.
“Fortunate Son” – John Fogerty
non-album B-side from the 1986 album Like a Rock
Holy shit! Bob really could rock. This CCR classic is great for Bob’s barrel-aged shout and Silver Bullet, featuring guest-drummer Don Brewer of Grand Funk, kicked the crowd at Detroit’s venerable Cobo Hall right in the nuts back in ’86. As success and the ’80s smoothed him out a bit, this serves as a reminder of the energy Bob brought to every show in his leaner, hungrier days.
“16 Shells from a 30 Ought Six” – Tom Waits
from the 1995 album It’s a Mystery
Although Bob gave a couple of Tom Waits compositions (“New Coat of Paint”, “Blind Love”) a whirl on 1991’s putrid The Fire Inside, I wanted to shine a little light on the oft-overlooked Mystery record. Don’t get me wrong, this album isn’t very good either, but Bob does display a little bit of the old fire down below on this inspired cover of “16 Shells.”
“California Stars” – Woody Guthrie (music by Jeff Tweedy & Jay Bennett of Wilco)
from the 2014 album Ride Out
Bob included a number of covers on this fairly uneven late-career collection of new recordings. This is an appropriate cover for Bob, because my man dreamed of those Cali twinkles in the night sky and desperately craved the same type of success enjoyed by his boy in SoCal, Glenn Frey and the Eagles. This is an older, wiser reflection on “Hollywood Nights.”
“Busload of Faith” – Lou Reed
from the 2017 album I Knew You When
Even headband, golf-enthusiast Bob could muster some of the old platform soul. Don’t know if he musters the swagger of the late Lou Reed, but he’s definitely feeling this one. The studio version is nicely polished, but this eyewitness video from Pittsburgh back in ’17 catches Bob firmly in road warrior mode. He toured the U.S. of A. with a skilled and seasoned band, and this inspired song choice provided a bit of street cred.
“Democracy” – Leonard Cohen
from the 2017 album I Knew You When
“It’s coming from the feel that this ain’t exactly real, or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there” is not a line that Bob could pull off in one of his own compositions. But this Leonard Cohen commentary clearly speaks to him. And it’s a discernibly different song in his hands, compared to Cohen’s own version. Another inspired choice to close his final collection of songs.
Bob took ten years off from the music business later in his career. When he came back in the aughts, he seemed to have lost a bit of the creative fire inside. But he never lost his interpretive powers; the covers on his final record are proof of that. He finds a piece of himself in every cover and shows deference to the writer’s craft. Bob Seger is an icon of classic rock – always a generous interpreter and a gracious performer. If you haven’t heard him in a while, give a listen.