Samuel James CD “And For The Dark Road Ahead” Photo by Aimsel Ponti

This week, let’s talk about cover songs. Don’t get me wrong, I love originals, but sometimes a well done cover can put an entirely new spin on a song and make the listener love it all the more or even result in an appreciation for one you might have not been drawn to in the first place.

Seeing that Maine has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to musicians, it should come as no surprise that there are several Maine artists who have recorded some truly remarkable covers of songs, by everyone from Elton John to Taylor Swift.

I’ve rounded up some of these tunes and also reached out to some of the artists who shared their recollections of choosing and recording them.

I’ve also created a Spotify playlist called Beneath the Covers: The Maine Version where you can find them.

SONG: “Don’t Give Up”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: Peter Gabriel with Kate Bush, on Gabriel’s 1986 “So” album
MAINE VERSION: Micromassé with Sara Hallie Richardson, from the 2014 two-song EP “Because You Have Friends”

Micromassé is the jazz, funk and Afrobeat trio of Pete Dugas on organ, drummer Chris Sweet and guitarist Max Cantlin. Dugas said he’s a longtime fan of Gabriel, and when they decided to cover the song in 2014, there was no shortage of challenging news.

“The lyrics were perfect for what was going on those days with Syrian refugees and Congolese refugees and a lot of folks coming to Portland and I was thinking a lot about their tough circumstances,” recalled Dugas. He also said that the song lent itself well to the Afrobeat sound his band tries to pay homage to. Dugas also recalled the emotional experience of playing the song live at last year’s tribute show at the State Theatre to late musician Dave Noyes, whose trombone is on the recording.

Micromassé and Richardson were backed by the Amarantos Quartet, which features Noyes’ widow Anna Maria Amoroso Noyes on viola. Richardson told me she’s a huge Kate Bush fan and was thrilled when Dugas reached out to her about singing on it. She also loves the original video for the song, which is essentially Gabriel and Bush in an embrace for the entirety of it as they sing.

“It feels particularly prevalent now, seeing as all I want to do is hug everyone for at least six minutes and 34 seconds (the song’s duration).” Richardson also spoke about the Noyes show. “It felt powerful to look out into the crowd of all who admired this brilliant man and sing out a song of home and communion.” What I love about this version of the song is how it is sped up and vibrant but retains the vocally arresting refrain. Richardson deftly handles both the Gabriel and Bush parts.

SONG: “Rocket Man”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: Elton John, on his 1972 album “Honky Château”
MAINE VERSION: Samuel James from “And For The Dark Road Ahead” (2012)

James told me he clearly remembers the entire process of the John cover from conception to release. He also pointed out a humorous and entirely true facet of the classic tune. “‘Rocket Man’ is one of those funny sing-alongs where everybody joins in, but nobody actually knows the words.” I, however, am one of those nerds who actually does know that the refrain is “Rocket Man, burning out his fuse up here alone” and appreciate that when James sings it, you can make out the words.

James went on to say that if you really listen to the words, the song is a “straight-up, poor boy long way from home kind of blues song.” When he decided to tackle it, James kept the chords and lyrics intact but arranged “Rocket Man” for a happy ragtime guitar sound. It’s a gigantic departure from the original, but the James version dazzles with its guitar work.

Carol Noonan “As Tears Go By” CD. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

SONG: “Walk Away Renee”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: The Left Banke (written by Michael Brown, Bob Calillo and Tony Sansone), on their 1966 debut album “Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina”
MAINE VERSION: Carol Noonan from “As Tears Go By” (2007)

Carol Noonan told me she barely remembers recording the album, and that’s fair because only a year prior she had opened her music venue Stone Mountain Arts Center. She does, however, seem to think it was guitarist Duke Levine’s idea to cover “Walk Away Renee.”

Her original idea was to do an album of Burt Bacharach era tunes, but not long into recording them, she, Levine and her other guitarist, Kevin Barry, realized the songs just weren’t in Noonan’s wheelhouse. “We went back to the drawing board and picked some songs from the same years that we all loved and might work better for me, and ‘Renee’ was one of my favorites.”

Noonan also expressed longing to see her two longtime friends and bandmates, as this is the longest they’ve gone without seeing other, because of the pandemic. “Your question (about the song) is reminding me how special they are and long a relationship we have had. This is one of the hardest part of this isolation.”

The entire “As Tears Go By” album is cover songs, including the Rolling Stones title track, along with their “Ruby Tuesday” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn.” She also did manage to get a few Bacharach songs on there, including “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Baby It’s You.” I’m particularly taken by Noonan’s take on “Walk Away Renee” because it injects a whole lot of heart into the kind of song that I likely heard as a kid in the dentist’s office. The Left Banke version is solid, fun and even has a flute solo. But it doesn’t pack the kind of heart-punch that Noonan’s pipes give it.

SONG: “Lover”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: Taylor Swift, on 2019 album “Lover”
MAINE VERSION: KGFREEZE from this year’s “Phalanges”

Kyle Gervais, who performs and records under the name KGFREEZE, told me he decided to cover “Lover” the very first time he heard it. “The bridge is genius and I knew I could pull the whole song off if I brought it down an octave.” But that’s not the only reason Gervais took an interest in Swift’s dream pop hit. “I also liked how I was writing a record about a guy with a tendency to drink so I could repurpose the line ‘take me out/take me home’ to fit within the narrative I was creating.” Gervais said that he realized if he did the song faithfully, it would help the rest of his album. “It would allow for a left turn within my own more aggressive material. Like, this guy actually does have a heart.”

Here are a few other notable cover songs by Maine artists:

SONG: “Coming Up Close”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: ‘Til Tuesday, from the band’s 1986 album “Welcome Home”
MAINE VERSION: Gypsy Tailwind from “Grace” (2009)

SONG: “When Doves Cry”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: Prince, from 1984 “Purple Rain” soundtrack album
MAINE VERSION: Port of Est single, released in 2016

SONG: “Slippery People”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: Talking Heads, on 1982 album “Speaking in Tongues”
MAINE VERSION: Jason Spooner from “The Flame You Follow” (2007)

SONG: “Baba O’Riley”
ORIGINAL ARTIST: The Who, on 1971 album “Who’s Next”
MAINE VERSION: The Ghost of Paul Revere from Field Notes Vol. 1″ (2015)

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