I don't mind cover versions, but I do get pissed off with cover versions of cover versions; when a performer borrows not just the song, but the arrangement, phrasing and instrumentation of a 'definitive' performance. 'Over the Rainbow' is a good example. Judy Garland's performance was etched into the collective consciousness to such an extent that few other people dared attempt it; when they did, it had to be a carbon copy (see Rufus Wainwright for ar ecent example). If anybody had the balls to follow another route, he or she could be guaranteed a pack of feral copycats: so Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's take suffers the indignity of a frontal assault from Cliff Richard; Eva Cassidy gets the Leona Lewis treatment, and a trickledown effect into every karaoke booth on the planet. (An aside, but is there a rule that you have to be safely dead before your version is fair game?)
Fast forward to David McAlmont at the Festival Hall Ballroom on Saturday night. (Yes, I'm on one of my midnight flits to the London fleshpots.) He's doing a selection of songs by Harold Arlen, who's something of a forgotten man in the context of the Great American Songbook, especially when set alongside the Holy Trinity of Porter, Gershwin and Berlin. It's only when you hear his songs all in a row that you realise how good he was: 'Get Happy'; 'It's Only a Paper Moon'; 'Stormy Weather'; 'That Old Black Magic'; 'The Man That Got Away'; 'One For My Baby' as well as the songs for The Wizard of Oz.
And it's in this context that McAlmont finds something new about the song, albeit something that's been staring us in the face for nearly 70 years. Arlen, the son of a Buffalo cantor, had a deep understanding of African-American music; not just the jazz beloved of his songwriting contemporaries, but the sounds of an older, rougher tradition. With his extraordinary range, falsetto swooping down into basso growls, McAlmont could use 'Rainbow' as a showcase for his virtuosity, but he keeps himself in check, and unearths the truth: it's a blues song, as raw and yearning and bitter as anything created by a blind man with a crappy guitar.
Keep an eye out for the cover of the cover at a karaoke night near you.