The cover of the new tribute album, Jem Records Celebrates John Lennon, features a drawing by famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. You can see it to the right. Lennon — casually dressed in a T-shirt, and with no shoes on — sits on a windowsill in his New York apartment with the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building visible behind him. Even in a sitting position, with his knees pulled up to his chest, he seems bigger than the skyscrapers.
It’s a daunting challenge, of course, to create a tribute to such a — forgive the pun — towering musical figure as Lennon (the 80th anniversary of whose birth takes place tomorrow, Oct. 9, the same day that this tribute will be released). Where do you start? What do you do? How can your efforts seem worthy?
The artists on the album, who all record for the Jersey-based Jem label, don’t seem daunted by the challenged. These tracks show deep knowledge of the tracks, and deep affection. Some are pretty straightforward, and others add new twists. Lennon’s signature songs are largely avoided — there is no “Imagine” here, no “A Day in the Life,” no “Come Together” — though The Grip Weeds do tackle “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Johnathan Pushkar covers Lennon’s No. 1 solo hit, “(Just Like) Starting Over.”
The Gold Needles reinvent “Cold Turkey,” in part, by adding the aggressive piano riff from “Hey Bulldog” to it. Just in time for the election season, Richard Barone explores Lennon’s political side, starting with the acerbic “Revolution” but using the song’s hopeful, repeated line, “Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right,” as a bridge to Lennon’s more wholeheartedly inspirational “Power to the People.” Breathlessly fast and playfully arranged, the mashup takes on an inspirational power of its own.
Of the more straightforward songs, my favorite is The Grip Weeds’ “You Can’t Do That,” an explosively buoyant version of one of Lennon’s underappreciated early Beatles songs.
The Weeklings make the Beatles song “The Word” a little darker and heavier (listen below) and intriguingly smooth out the rough edges of “What’s the New Mary Jane?” (an outtake included on The Beatles’ Anthology), imagining what it might have sounded like if the Fab Four had tried to make it merely quirky, and not totally bizarre.
The Anderson Council make “I Found Out” faster and bouncier without losing any of the song’s harrowing intensity. And The Midnight Callers precede their sumptuous version of “Jealous Guy” with “Child of Nature,” the earlier version of the song that was an outtake from the White Album sessions.
Here is the song order for the 13-track album:
“The Word,” The Weeklings
“Child of Nature,” The Midnight Callers
“Jealous Guy,” The Midnight Callers
“You Can’t Do That,” The Grip Weeds
“(Just Like) Starting Over,” Johnathan Pushkar
“No Reply,” The Gold Needles
“Revolution”/”Power to the People,” Richard Barone
“Strawberry Fields Forever,” The Grip Weeds
“It Won’t Be Long,” The Midnight Callers
“I Found Out,” The Anderson Council
“Hey Bulldog”/”Cold Turkey,” The Gold Needles
“I Call Your Name,” Johnathan Pushkar
“What’s the New Mary Jane?,” The Weeklings
For more on the album, visit jemrecordings.com.
On Oct. 9, bands featured on this album will participate in The Fest for Beatles Fans’ “Virtual 80th Birthday Salute to John Lennon,” streaming from the Daryl’s House Club in Pawling, N.Y. The salute will be viewable online from 5 to 11 p.m., and the Jem Records Celebrates John Lennon segment, at 7 p.m., will feature The Weeklings, The Grip Weeds, Barone, The Midnight Callers, The Anderson Council and Johnathan Pushkar. For information or to buy tickets, visit eventbrite.com.
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