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Readers’ Poll: The Greatest Live Cover Songs

Your picks include Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” and Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images; Jim McCrary/Redferns; Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage

Beck played an amazing version of David Bowie's 1977 classic "Sound and Vision" last week, and it got us thinking about other great covers from concerts in the past. Often the best part of a show is seeing an artist sing an unexpected cover, whether it's Bruce Springsteen singing "Quarter to Three," Pearl Jam doing "Rockin' in the Free World" or the Rolling Stones covering Chuck Berry's "Carol." A great artist takes someone else's song and manages to transform it into something else entirely. We asked our readers to vote for their 10 favorite live covers. Here are the results.

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6. The White Stripes – ‘Jolene’

Dolly Parton's 1973 classic "Jolene" is a pretty remarkable song. It's the tale of a woman dealing with an adulterous husband, but there's not the slightest hint of anger towards the man. Instead, she pleads with his mistress to stop seeing him, fully acknowledging that she can't compete with her beauty. It's far from a feminist anthem, but Parton is such a great songwriter, you actually want this vile temptress Jolene to give up her man so Dolly can have her happiness back, even though it's with a cheating husband who'll probably stray again as soon as another Jolene rolls around. Jack White has always loved country stars of the 1960s and 1970s, and "Jolene" was a key part of White Stripes gigs since their earliest days.

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5. The Who – ‘Young Man Blues’

The Who's Tommy had gotten so wildly successful by 1970 that it was starting to overshadow the band. Bassist John Entwistle joked that some fans though the band was called Tommy and the album was The Who. To rectify this, they released a live album that contained not a single song from Tommy. Instead, Live at Leeds was a showcase for their early singles like "Magic Bus" and "Substitute," along with three cover songs rearranged in their signature "Maximum R&B" style." The album began with a furious take on Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues." The original was recorded on the piano, but the Who transformed it into a wild guitar, bass and drum freakout. 

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4. Joe Cocker – ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’

Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help From My Friends" makes many people feel nostalgic, but for two distinct periods of time. If you're a baby boomer, it instantly brings Woodstock to mind and that brief feeling that mankind was going to come together as one to create a better world. Everybody was going to get by with a little help from their friends and the war would soon end. (That's not quite how the next few years played out.) If you grew up in the 1980s, it instantly brings The Wonder Years to mind. Cocker's cover of the Beatles' classic was the theme song to the show, which was nostalgic itself because it took place 20 years in the past. If you grew up in the 2000s, you hear the song and wonder who that guy is with the crazy voice. 

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3. Jimi Hendrix – ‘All Along the Watchtower’

Few people took notice of "All Along the Watchtower" when Bob Dylan released it on John Wesley Harding in late 1967. The single didn't even chart, and the quiet acoustic song felt a little out of place during the height of the psychedelic movement. Six months later, however, Jimi Hendrix put out his own version of the song. It cracked the Top 20, becoming the single biggest hit of his brief career. Even Dylan admits that the Jimi Hendrix version is better than his own. "I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this and ever since he died, I've been doing it that way," he said in 1985.  "Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way." 

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2. Nirvana – ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’

Most groups selected to record an MTV Unplugged concert in the 1990s saw it as an opportunity to play their hits in a slightly different way. Nirvana saw it as an opportunity to shine the spotlight on their friends the Meat Puppets and expose their huge fanbase to some great covers. The show ended with Lead Belly's arrangement of the traditional folk song "In the Pines," which they titled "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" The song is well over 100 years old and has been recorded by everyone from Joan Baez to Dolly Parton to the Grateful Dead, but nobody ever conveyed the tune's anguish and rage quite like Kurt Cobain. It remains one of the most haunting moments of Nirvana's career. 

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1. Nirvana – ‘The Man Who Sold the World’

When David Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails in the summer of 1995, he didn't play any of his big hits, leaving the young fans pretty bored. They did perk up when he busted out "The Man Who Sold the World." Needless to say, many of them thought he was paying tribute to the late Kurt Cobain. Months earlier, Nirvana released Unplugged in New York and the network played their cover of "The Man Who Sold the World" over and over.

If the mark of a good cover is that people don't even realize it's a cover, Nirvana certainly did a good job. Their arrangement isn't dramatically different than Bowie's, but his original is about his 20th most famous song, so it isn't very widely known. The song also took on a new meaning after Cobain died. This was a man with the world at his fingertips, and he gave it all up.