What a great idea. But such a mammoth task. However, so wonderfully realised. You should all be very proud.
Here are some of my thoughts and feelings on hearing the intriguing and often inspired interpretations of Procol Harum related music featured on From Shadow To Shadow.
Surely you can't succeed in covering Whisky Train without playing THAT riff – but Rich Hardesty and the Del Reys pull it off impressively by tastefully combining a simple acoustic rhythm with an explosion of electric slide lead. A nice contrast with the excellently executed straight cover by the Dave Steffen Band which opens the collection.
Oh my gawd! Is that John Otway bemoaning his torment whilst banging away on the typewriter keys? No it's The Oakes Brothers' splendid Vaudevillean-like cockney version infected with a dose of the bleedin' blinkin' blimey's! Impressively they pull the whole thing off whilst occasionally skating on thin ice.
I love the idea of a Procol song portrayed as someone busking away their personal problems on a London railway platform. Not a souvenir you'd look to see on sale in any gift shop; Dave Lee, I hope you earned enough spare change to pay for first class treatment! Rambling On by The Nags Head Quartet (Peter Hummers – voice, guitar, kazoo and wings!) similarly displays a stripped down busker-like performance.
I don't know if George Bertok is making a statement here but it's some accomplishment, and interesting to hear the whole of The Worm and the Tree condensed into less than four minutes. Now that surely is something magic.
Conquistador by Conjunto Jardín and So Far Behind by The Bluegrass Geeks are to my mind the most inspired interpretations here. The bluegrass treatment of So Far ... works a treat, complete with twangy vocals, picked banjo, mandolin and fiddle, even if the lyrics don't immediately lend themselves to the style. Included is a cheeky lo-fi sample of Gary's spoken 'so far, so far behind' as featured at recent gigs. I'd just give the first prize overall however to the spirited flamenco version of Conquistador because the arrangement, musicianship and performance are absolutely first-rate. Emotionally as well, it's a powerful rendition. The use of Spanish interspersed with the English lyric adds even more to the exotic nature of the effort . I'd imagine Gary and Keith would be brimming with satisfaction on hearing both these efforts.
It's good to hear a genuine live recording amongst the tracks; La Rue zip through a rocking version of Memorial Drive. The poor sound-quality of this mono recording matters not one bit as the electricity of the performance comes shining through. And it's nice to hear the positive reaction of the audience at the end of the song.
Now, The Pursuit Of Happiness by Al 'One-Eye' Edelist is one of my absolute favourites. Sounding like a Jonathan Richmond-meets-Blondie collaboration (Jane Clare is the Debbie Harry backing), I have to say I like this version (Gary turn a blind two-eyes at this point) much more than the original, which I've never really cared for. I feel this uptempo interpretation brings out the lyrics much more forcefully than the Procol track. Al's voice has a very appealing deadpan quality which somehow combines fun with seriousness. It should be released as the album's single! He also does a nice job coming across as a wizened delta bluesman on Juicy John Pink by The Grappling Hooks.
Crikey! The Doubtful Guests have employed Neil Hannon on vocals for Your Own Choice. He also seems to have had a hand in a rather eccentric Divine Comedy-like arrangement ... Oops! My mistake, it's Stephen 'Doc' Wallace backing various members of the ubiquitous Clare family and Pam Kaye's conclusive examples. I didn't like this at all on first listen (probably the shock), but it's growing rapidly on me with every listen. 'Shall we dance?' ... 'I don't dance' – great fun. The decor of the piece has also been embellished by a few shades of pale here and there. A Brooker / Reid composition grows into a Brooker / Reid / Fisher collaboration as the track fuses into the tag of Pilgrim's Progress at the end.
The original of Too Much Between Us features the gentlest vocal performance of Gary's career, matching the intimacy of the lyrics perfectly. The heavy drums and distorted guitar at the intro of Donna Blue's version initially sounded much too harsh but by the end I was totally bowled over by this alternative Patti Smith-sounding cover, which now brings out a slightly different feeling from the words; a real winner. Several tracks virtually rewrite the musical content of Procol songs – Fran Glendining creates a laid-back jazzy lounge version of Lime Street Blues which cleverly incorporates a section from Gary's solo track Ghost Train on trumpet and sultry vocal 'ba ba bas'. It gives some idea of how a Brooker / Bacharach / Reid song might sound!
In a less dramatic fashion Elizabeth Bryson turns Toujours L'Amour into a two-and-a-half minute wistful piano and voice number. The melody bears only a mild resemblance to the original here but her own adaptation makes the song more intimate and poignant. TV Ceasar by Kaleidoscope Symphony, whilst not a rewrite as such, is very different from the original. It is driven by a heavily-phased strummed guitar rhythm and comes across as an early Pink Floyd track complete with some odd vocal harmonies. This new interpretation certainly maintains the dark and sinister atmosphere of the original. Speaking of which, Antonio Costa Barbé sounds spookily Transylvanian on another dramatic track, this time his version of The Idol.
A number of tracks sound like they feature bedroom creations (using sample-based computer set-ups). These include Luiz de Boni's atmospheric Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), Sev Lewkowicz's New Age rendition of A Salty Dog, straight copies of Repent Walpurgis by Andreas Havlik's and a dynamic Wreck Of The Hesperus by Ethan Reilly, and Les Fradkin's energetic Eurovision-like version of Fellow Travellers. The best however is Peter Skorpik's nicely arranged The Emperor's New Clothes. The orchestral combinations are spot on and give some idea of how it might sound should Procol perform it with an orchestra. I will say however that the programmed acoustic guitar playing doesn't sound realistic – too regimented with not enough human feel. A real guitarist performing would have really polished off a terrific instrumental cover.
The straight cover of Gary's solo track The Angler by Roger Ilott and Penny Davies is like a musical balm and brings out perfectly the joy of casting away those lazy Summer days.
A complete rendition of In Held 'Twas In I closes the collection: a bold attempt which brings out a number of positives. Glimpses Of Nirvana contains some subtly-put-together sound effects; reversed gong and cymbals underscore the sitar theme. And is that a purring cat in the background? The deep Irish brogue of Sam Cameron as the narrator is rich with character and comes as a nice surprise. At teatime it was nice to hear the Oakes Brothers clowning around again, and, John Edgar, in my desperation I do believe I heard an Edmonton-inspired joke! After an interesting Finnish interpretation of In The Autumn Of My Madness as Hulluuteni Syksy sung by Saara, 'Doc' Wallace does a grand job of singing Look To Your Soul, surely one of the most testing Procol songs vocally. I would have preferred Sam to have continued his narration on the 'Life is a beanstalk' monologue, which in this instance is spoken by John over the Grand Finale. But this is a minor quibble. Perfect family harmony emerges when the Clares sing their hearts out as the piece comes to a perfect conclusion.
A special mention should be made of those names who crop up throughout the collection. The talented Clare family members glue the whole thing together with enthusiasm, skill and thoughtfulness. And the name of Gary Shepard seems to coincide with some brilliant fuzzy Trowerisms on more than a couple of occasions (including his own version of Wish Me Well) as well as with various other instruments.
One or two attempts display scars of the mark of the claw, in that there are questions of judgement in terms of construction and some errors of taste, but this is to be expected amongst such a large collection of musicians of variable talent. Thankfully though, nothing that could be described as a God-awful mess. But this is not the point. Every single track has merit and contains respect, love and spirit inspired by the original versions. And in a way more than any compilation of the originals, this collection gives the listener a perfect example of the impressive breadth of style and scope of Procol Harum's music. Also, in their hearts surely this collection would mean more to the originators than any number of awards, reviews and sale figures.
I have to shamefully admit that I thought I'd be buying this double CD simply to listen to it once as way of contributing a few coffers to the cause, and then laying it dormant to gather dust – but no way! It rightfully takes its place on the 'Procol Harum related' shelf of my collection and will become more than just an occasional listen.
In fact, the whole concept has inspired me to try my hand at a cover of my own; various ethnic instruments at the ready; Right, here goes – clears throat ... ..
'Scripture ... Brush.
Glory ... Blush
(reggae rhythm on ukulele, two toots on penny whistle, extended solo on didgeridoo)
Read the scripture,
swept the brush.
All this glory
makes me blush '
Can you tell what it is yet? Well, what d'ya think?
No, on second thoughts perhaps not! I'll step back into the shade. All of you involved however – come out of the shadows, and take a bow.
Alan Matthews, England; 22 May 2004