Prog Rock Legends Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Randy George serve up a musical feast on masterful new cover collection.
Cover To Cover Anthology Vol. 1 – 3 (Insideoutmusic)
Release Date: 24 July 2020
Words: Kahmel Farahani
After several months of livestreams, zoom gigs and unplugged E.P.s, we have here what might just be the ultimate ‘lockdown’ album of 2020. A lush and expansive collection of 36 songs covered by former Dream Theater drummer and all around prog rock legend Mike Portnoy and some old friends.
Portnoy is joined by multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and long time collaborator Neal Morse on vocals, guitar and keys and bassist Randy George to form a power trio that can take on just about any style of music you care to name. From Southern Rock and Pop Rock to progressive masterpieces, it is all here spread across three disks.
Unlike some other famous cover albums where the artist will remake the songs from the ground up, such as Emotive by A Perfect Circle, Morse, Portnoy and George have decided to stick closely to the original arrangements of the songs here.
What they have done is add their own subtle yet powerful sonic coat of paint to every song here.
Disk 1 comprises the more straight ahead Rock and Roll moments of this collection, like the almost Pop-Punk recording of ‘I’m The Man’.
It opens with an impressive cover of U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name. With its bigger drums and total lack of Bono, it is an instant improvement over the original.
A rather brilliant remake of The Monkees’s ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ is another unexpected treat.
A real highlight of the first disk is not an obvious choice, rather it is their version of the beautiful Cat Stevens gem ‘Where Do The Children Play’. A fine reminder that the best bands do not have to keep the volume at 11 to make an impact (as well as a timely reminder of what an underrated lyricist Cat Stevens was).
The amps are turn up again for a joyful version of The Who’s ‘I’m Free/Sparks’ before a wonderful jam of Chicago’s ‘Feeling Stronger Everyday’ complete with full horn section.
The first disk finishes rather appropriately with a intense take on David Bowie’s ‘Rock N Roll Suicide’.
Disk 2 opens with a thunderous drum roll and the impassioned call to arms of ‘What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding’, here given what feels like greater urgency.
One of the best things about this collection is the band’s choice to largely go for deeper album cuts instead of obvious hits. Doing Styx’s ‘Come Sail Away is so majestic it’s not even a guilty pleasure anymore.
Another highlight is the outstanding Neal Young Medley of ‘Southern Man/Needle And The Damage Done/Cinnamon Girl’.
A note perfect version of Steely Dan’s ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ is followed by a brilliant re-working of The Bee Gee’s ‘Lemons Never Forget’, which sounds like a marriage of Dream Theater and The Beatles!
Neal Morse must surely have one of the most versatile voices in music, always just right for the wide range of songs here but never overbearing. Whether its glossy Pop Rock gems like Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw The Light’ or old school British Prog like Jethro Tull’s ‘Teacher’, its an absolute joy to hear Morse sing and play his way through such a variety of material.
Disk 2 ends with Morse/Portnoy/George covering the truly magnificent King Crimson song ‘Starless’. It is hard to imagine a more grand and uncompromising slice of Prog rock than ‘Starless’ and it is the perfect vehicle for all three musicians to really unwind and stretch their musical muscles.
Disk 3 is the new one recorded this year and it is not too hard to see Portnoy’s legendary passion for collecting vinyl records as the main unifying force here. It is a project of passion from music fans for other fans.
The disk starts with a bang in the form of the Richie Havens/Yes track ‘No Opportunity Necessary,No Experience Needed’, here given a real turbo-charging with massive drums and frantic funky riffing. It is followed by the dazzling heavy prog belter ‘Hymn 43’ which sees all three musicians really cut loose filling every second with a drum fill or guitar solo that grabs your attention.
Neal Morse told MetalTalk: “When I was young and they packed me off to school, someone played me the second side of the Aqualung album by Jethro Tull and I was immediately consumed by it. ‘Hymn 43’ being one of my favorite tracks I was thrilled when the guys wanted to record this one. We kicked it out in one or two takes and it was a gas!”
A faithful version of Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ does not disappoint and it is followed by something even better.
Morse/Portnoy/George have managed to breath new life into the classic Gerry Rafferty ‘Baker Street’.
Every instrument is right where you remember it, but just with greater clarity and added guitar solo.
The softer and more melodic is represented by their version of Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’, as well as Ringo Starr’s ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, featuring Portnoy’s daughter Melody on backing vocals.
Die-hard Prog fans should be pleased with their version of King Crimson’s ‘One More Red Nightmare’ as well, complete with dueling sax and guitar solos.
A wonderful tribute to the late great Tom Petty is here with ‘Running Down A Dream`’ before the album ends with an unexpected but entirely appropriate song. Lenny Kravitz’s mellow, mid tempo soul rocker ‘Let Love Rule’ is the final track here and its a perfect ending to such a diverse collection, both musically and lyrically.
Morse, Portnoy and George have put together a truly lavish feast for all fans of real music, regardless of genre, space or time.
As Mike Portnoy told us: “One of the first things myself, Neal and Randy usually start talking about what we can cover when we gather for one of Neal’s solo albums, should we have some leftover time at the end of the session.
“Most of the songs are rooted in the 60s and 70s and are songs / bands we grew up with.”
Randy George concluded: “We all share an attachment for this era of music, so we each throw out song ideas, see what sticks, and record the ones we like the most!”
Sit back with a good pair of headphones, a cool drink and get ready to savour it.