Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Confession time: it took a while for the Bad Shepherds’ Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methara to sink in. For one thing, there are rather too many novelty covers projects for comfort, from the initially inventive Hayseed Dixie to the downright bizarre Rockabye lullaby renditions. For another thing, bandleader Adrian “Ade” Edmondson is better known as a comic actor, from The Young Ones to Bottom, and is the husband of Jennifer “Absolutely Fabulous” Saunders. The whole affair smacked of novelty and nonsense, setting all my prejudices bristling. And so it remained, my ears deaf to compromise.
But I hadn’t realized a number of things. Firstly, Edmondson was both a genuine lover of both folk music and of the punk and new wave he interprets in that genre. Not such an odd combination as it sounds, broadly similar to my own tastes, we being of similar ages and backgrounds. But rather than combining with other hobby musicians, Edmondson hooked up with a giant in the tradition, Troy Donockley, an Englishman adept on the Irish uillean pipes, with a track record playing alongside prog-rockers The Enid, Celtic rockers Iona and with doyenne of the Northumbrian pipes, Kathryn Tickell. Since 2013 he has been a member of Finnish band Nightwish.
Whilst nominally a duo, they enlisted Andy Dinan on fiddle, a onetime all-Ireland fiddle champion, for this album and the subsequent 2009 tour, with the late Maartin Allcock, erstwhile of Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull (both at once!), appearing on guitars when available. Edmondson played mandolin and sang, claiming to be a novice on both instruments. Rather than any straight ahead thrash, the arrangements were both sensitive to the originals, and respectful to the tradition, the insertion of many a traditional air going neither unnoticed nor uncredited. And neither was this any folk-rock lumpen jig and reel fest; the arrangements captured the heart and soul of the listener, rather than merely their feet.
Two further records appeared in 2010 and 2013, based largely on the accolades given the project, with votes as best live act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards in 2010, and the same for Spiral Earth, a website devoted to music festivals of all genres, in 2012. But it is this first recording that hits hardest the spot as a cover classic, the choices of songs being exemplary and the performances uplifting.
The Bad Shepherds – Up the Junction (Squeeze cover)
With deceptively slight vocals, conveying perfectly the pathos of the song, the arrangement is suspended between the simplicity of the strumming of the mandolin and the richness of the pipes.
The Bad Shepherds – The Model (Kraftwerk cover)
Again, it is the pipes that do most of the heavy lifting, almost making you believe that this could be a traditional air from County Kildare.
The Bad Shepherds – Teenage Kicks (Undertones cover)
Embraced by a pair of traditional tunes, it takes a moment before the Undertones take hold, swept aside by memories of Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar,” itself a traditional tune, the two tunes vying for attention ahead of a fiddle breakdown.
The Bad Shepherds – Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads cover)
Translated into English English, does this work? Mindful of acoustic Led Zeppelin (think “Thank You” as it opens), this may be how David Byrne might have turned out had he left his birth town of Dumbarton, in Scotland, for Bradford, Yorkshire, UK, home of Edmondson, rather than for Canada and the the U.S.