Monday, September 13, 2004


Semolina Pilchard

Portions of this review are also posted on Blogcritics.

The obvious question in recording any Beatles tribute album is "Why?". The original canon is holding up nicely forty years down the road, and most of the "tributes" that come out in various media are either bizarre affairs or add no value to the proceedings whatsoever. Oddly enough, the ones that are actually fun are those done by the various tribute bands, more as a memento of a live show, but occasionally with a great live interpretation of songs the Beatles never performed live. The group 1964 The Tribute did precisely that, with a live album that had an excellent four piece rendition of "And Your Bird Can Sing" (the original recording of course featured that wondrous harmony lead guitar line, played by George and Paul, but it's of course exceedingly difficult to reproduce correctly live if the band is in character as the Beatles in their touring days; it's certainly possible to play a very credible version with only a "George" handling lead, but it isn't going to match the original recording).

Yellow Matter Custard is a (pardon the expression) supergroup composed of neo-prog-rock faves Neal Morse (Spock's Beard) and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theatre), guitar magazine cover icon Paul Gilbert and Matt Bissonette. There's some excellent musicianship in this group, which likely had its genesis in Transatlantic, which featured Morse and Portnoy regularly covering Beatles songs, including "Strawberry Fields Forever" on "Live In America" and most of the second side of Abbey Road on "Live In Europe". The versions on those albums are respectful, yet allow the band's personality to come through, and are actually a bit of an inspiration to a few of us weekend band warriors looking to expand our repertoire a bit beyond the obvious. Morse's "Testimony" DVD features some behind the scenes video of the band goofing around on Beatles songs backstage and on the bus, and it's obvious that Morse wanted to do a full-blown Beatles tribute project. This of course isn't something where they're in character as the Fabs, more along the lines of an ongoing tribute project called the Fab Faux. The Fab Faux, unlike a lot of tribute acts don't stock their stage with the Beatles preferred toolset (various Rickenbackers, Gretsches, Hofners and Epiphones, Vox amps) but merely concentrate on reproducing the canon as best they can. Yellow Matter Custard is in that same vein, however,some photos on the album show Morse with a Rickenbacker 360/12, and Bissonette with a Hofner. Truth be told, most bands reproducing the Beatles mid-period live don't have the correct amplification, for as lovely as a Vox AC30 sounds, the sounds of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper were more those of the ultra-rare Vox 7120 (and other than the 1966 US tour, the Beatles were never known to have used the Vox Super Beatle amps produced under license by Thomas Organ).

This is a one-off live show, and it shows in the looseness of the performance. Even though most anyone who's picked up an electric guitar sometime in the last 40 years has played Beatles songs, there are a few flubbed words (not that the lads themselves didn't pull a few boners with lyrics onstage themselves, the live version of "Help" on Anthology being a notable example. This actually leads to an interesting side discussion as to what went on with the alleged sweetening of the Shea Stadium concert soundtrack. Although it's obvious that the studio version of "Act Naturally" was used in the film with overdubbed screams, there are just too many clunkers in "Twist and Shout" and "I Feel Fine", obviously caused by the huge screaming as well as the heat of the evening that would've been edited out in any real sweetening of the concert audio). The great part of this is that although it's obviously just a one-off, the band is having a high old time playing this stuff, and the choices are sufficiently eclectic to make any Beatles fan smile.

That said, sometimes the tempos of the songs seem off. Oh, they're keeping time just fine, but more than a few of the songs are a touch too fast. Another bit of a jarring note is that the drums and the bass are rather thundering. Given Portnoy and Bissonette's excellent chops, it sounds great, but Ringo and Paul are lighter players without a lot of thudding about (and of course we have to take into account the technical limitations of recordings from those days, the sound of the Beatles CDs for the most part coming nowhere near what primo condition Beatles vinyl can sound like). During "Revolution", Paul Gilbert launches into a bit of fretboard tapping to accent the keys, and it's way too incongruous for my taste. On the same track, the distortion tone on what would be John's part just seems a touch wimpy, surprising for a band with these chops and quals.

Looking at the set list, early stuff includes "You Can't Do That", "I Call Your Name", "I'll Be Back", "When I Get Home". a couple of rarely covered tracks from Beatles For Sale - "Baby's In Black" and "No Reply", and a great trio from Help, "The Night Before", "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" and "Ticket To Ride". A couple of personal favorites from Rubber Soul are included, "Think For Yourself" and "Wait" (I've only heard "Wait" covered once before, by the Gin Blossoms of all people, who also did a dynamite version of the Byrds' "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" that evening). Revolver unfortunately is underrepresented, although there's a very good "She Said She Said". "Rain" and "I Am The Walrus" are excellent. Lots of the original tracks' sound effects were sampled for the show, giving both "I Am The Walrus" and "A Day In The Life" an almost too-authentic air (in certain ways I wish that Morse and the additional keyboard player had just come up with their own parts that approximated the originals; it's a bit disconcerting to go from the live tracks to the originals then back. Any veteran of the New York metro area bar band circuit will tell tales of how bands like Yasgur's Farm, Zebra and Rat Race Choir had great keyboard parts for songs in the English prog-rock genre as far back as the mid 70s). Abbey Road is also underrepresented, with only "Come Together", Oh Darling" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" covered on the CD. A couple of oddball choices are "Free As A Bird" and "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)".

The problem of course with any eclectic set list like this is that a couple of pieces you might want to hear are necessarily excluded, say "I Need You" or "Another Girl". The tribute cover sometimes misfires badly, amazingly enough in the case of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers' sappy performance at The Concert For George (which was a major disappointment, as Petty has always done some pretty fierce Byrds covers, and it isn't that far a stretch to do "Taxman"), but there are no misfires here, just incongruities because the originals are so ingrained in us that even the slightest "treatment" will cause our inner nitpickers to rise to the occasion.

The complete track list:
CD 1

  1. Magical Mystery Tour
  2. Dear Prudence
  3. Dig a Pony
  4. She Said She Said
  5. I Call Your Name
  6. You Can't Do That
  7. When I Get Home
  8. Nowhere Man
  9. Rain
  10. Free As A Bird
  11. Come Together
  12. I Am The Walrus
  13. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

CD 2

  1. Baby's In Black
  2. I'll Be Back
  3. No Reply
  4. The Night Before
  5. You're Gonna Lose That Girl
  6. Ticket To Ride
  7. Everybody's Got Something To Hide (Except For Me And My Monkey)
  8. Oh Darling
  9. Think For Yourself
  10. Wait
  11. Revolution
  12. I Want You (She's So Heavy)
  13. You Know My Name (Now Look Up The Number)
  14. Lovely Rita
  15. Good Morning Good Morning
  16. Sgt. Pepper Reprise
  17. A Day In The Life

Available only from Radiant Records. If you're into Neal Morse, Spock's Beard, Transatlantic or any of the other artists on Radiant's roster, please buy directly from them and give them some support.


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