HAVING already cemented his position as one of our most talented singer-songwriters with albums like 2023′s excellent double-set, The Book of Absolution, Belfast-based artist Anthony Toner is also making a name for himself as a purveyor of choice cover versions.
“I started my musical life playing covers, playing in dance bands and playing in bars,” explains Toner, who released his first covers collection, Ghost Notes Vol 1, during lockdown in 2020.
“Over the years, so many of those songs have kind of got under my skin. And so many of them actually came from childhood: old Elvis and Charley Pride songs were some of the first things I heard when I was growing up.”
For musicians and songwriters, there’s a natural inclination to not only want to learn how to play each and every earworm that makes an impact, but also to pull them apart in order to understand how they work.
Often, some experimentation will occur during ‘reassembly’.
On Ghost Notes Vol 1, the Co Derry musician proved himself adept at putting his own distinctive acoustic guitar-rooted spin on songs by artists as diverse as Van Morrison, Neil Young, Paul Young, Chrissie Hynde and Candi Staton.
It was so well received that Toner almost immediately started cultivating Ghost Notes Vol 2 in a similar manner. Released at the tail end of last year to an enthusiastic response from fans, the record features another eclectic selection of songs, where tunes by Steely Dan and Elvis rub shoulders with material from Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Paul McCartney.
Both collections were largely home-recorded before being lightly embellished at the Coleraine studio of his friend, Clive Culbertson – former sideman for Van The Man – who produced and added bass guitar where required.
“It was fun to do the first collection, and it did get a really nice reaction,” explains Toner, who also has a regular gig playing electric blues in the Ronnie Greer Band.
“And then of course, people were saying, ‘Oh, I thought you could do a Tom Waits one?’ or ‘I thought you were going to do a John Prine one?’ So I kept thinking, ‘well, maybe I’ll do a second volume sometime’, you know?
“Then I thought about even doing themed ones, like ‘could we do a Ghost Notes: Dylan, or a Ghost Notes: Blues?’ But I don’t know, there’s something about the fact that it’s a miscellany, kind of a compilation of different aspects. That’s one of the fun things, I think.
“You’re going straight from Elvis to Tom Waits [his ballad Johnsburg, Illinois] and there’s even a King Crimson track in there. I would never have thought I’d be able to handle that, but I found a way of doing it.”
Indeed, Toner’s gently strummed take on the prog rockers’ dreamy Matte Kudasai sits comfortably beside a lovely finger-picked instrumental pass at Love Me Tender by The King himself (“my mother was a big Elvis fan,” he notes), stripping back the spacey atmospherics of the original to exploit its melodic and emotional core.
Similarly, his slide guitar-enhanced version of piano man Randy Newman’s off-kilter ode to “Irish girls”, Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier), pushes its essential melody to the fore while enhancing the appealing oddness of the original.
“It’s from one of my favourite albums of his, Little Criminals,” enthuses Toner of the Ghost Notes Vol 2 opener.
“I always loved this song because I had no real idea what was going on in it. There’s something quite sinister there, “Getting married in this little courtyard, down by the river where no one goes” and all that.
“I play a lot of blues and slide guitar with the Ronnie Greer Band and I was thinking we could try this song. Although in the end we decided it wasn’t suitable, I found a way of playing those chords with different notes on the bass that was just slightly different from from usual.
“Like a lot of these songs, I just played it and played it around the house. Every time I picked up the guitar, I was playing Kathleen. And then a voice in your head goes, ‘well, that has to go on the next collection’. So I just literally put microphones up and recorded it and put them in a folder.
“After about six months of that, before you know it, you’ve almost got an album.”
Sadly, by the time Ghost Notes Vol 2 was released, his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Over and Over had become a posthumous tribute to Christine McVie, who passed away in November 2022.
“That was one of the first songs I recorded for the album, maybe six or seven months before Christine died,” explains Toner, who has recently been scratching his country music itch with a new trio, The Boondocks.
“The version that’s on Tusk has always been one of my favourite Fleetwood Mac songs. There’s something very stately about it, it’s beautifully paced and the chords are really, really nice.
“I always liked the simplicity of it, but I decided to embellish it slightly, so it’s one of the only songs on the album that has bass on it, and a bit of piano and electric guitar as well.”
One of the stand-outs on the record is Toner’s hushed yet rousing version of the American traditional tune Shenandoah, replete with pedal steel and spine tingling vocal harmonies.
“That one has such a classic melody, and it’s got a beautiful chord sequence,” he enthuses.
“It’s so old, but it doesn’t feel old – there’s something quite modern about the way the chords move.
I played it as an instrumental around the house for days, but it was actually my wife, Andrea, who said “that’s really nice, you should sing it”
“I was a wee bit trepidatious about doing the vocal harmonies, but I think they really add something.”
He’s not wrong – feel free to add your own when Toner takes to the stage at the Portico of Ards in Portaferry on Friday night to perform selections from host Ghost Notes and his extensive repertoire of originals.
Anthony Toner, Friday February 2, Portico of Ards, Portaferry, 8pm. See anthonytoner.net for tickets, details of other upcoming live shows, and to purchase Ghost Notes Vol 2 directly.
Track by track: Ghost Notes Vol 2
1. Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier) - Randy Newman
It’s from one of my favourite albums of his called Little Criminals. It’s the one that has Short People and Jolly Coppers on Parade on it. I always loved this song because I had no real idea what was going on in it. There’s something quite sinister there, “Getting married in this little courtyard, down by the river where no one goes” and all that.
I play a lot of blues and slide guitar with the Ronnie Greer Band and I was thinking we could try this song. Although Ronnie liked it, in the end we decided it wasn’t suitable.
I found a way of playing those chords with different notes on the bass that was just slightly different from from usual. Like a lot of these songs, I just played it and played it around the house. Every time I picked up the guitar, I was playing Kathleen.
Then a voice in your head goes, ‘well, that has to go on the next collection’.
2. Over and Over - Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie)
That was one of the first songs I recorded for the album, maybe six or seven months before Christine died. The version that’s on Tusk has always one of my favourite Fleetwood Mac songs. There’s something very stately about it, it’s beautifully paced and the chords are really, really nice.
I always liked the simplicity of it, but I decided to embellish it slightly, so it’s one of the only songs on the album that has bass on it, and a bit of piano and electric guitar as well.
3. Fisherman’s Dream - John Martyn
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the original, but it’s from an album called Sapphire, which came out during his ‘electronic’ period.
I always thought that if you took all the drum machines and synthesizers off it and had just a guitar, it would be like a classic old folk tune. So I kind of messed around with it one day on the acoustic in an open-G tuning.
I love finding a way of getting into a thing from a different angle - that’s what Ghost Notes is kind of about.
4. Johnsburg, Illinois - Tom Waits
Short and incredibly sweet. Tom Waits’ exquisite love song to his new wife Kathleen, from Swordfishtrombones.
This one is fairly close to the original arrangement, just played on guitar instead of piano.
5. Rollback - Terry Allen
The late, great Phil Sinclair had a record shop up in Portrush. He was a great guy for pointing you in the right direction of things, and he was a big Terry Allen fan.
Terry is an artist from Lubbock, Texas, and he’s one of those guys who I would say are cruelly overlooked. I wouldn’t say he’s outlaw country, but he’s definitely outsider. His stuff is a wee bit weird and a bit funny. It’s not all in a straight line, and there’s never the same number of bars in each verse.
He’s undergoing a wee bit of a revival at the minute, actually: a label called Paradise of Bachelors has just started reissuing all his old stuff, and not before time.
I always loved the song Rollback, it has such a lovely sense of nostalgia, regret and love in it.
6. Matte Kudasai - King Crimson
Probably the only King Crimson song that lends itself to a cover version - a beautiful, restrained gem from the occasionally challenging Discipline album.
7. Love Me Tender - Elvis
When I think about childhood songs, I think a lot about my mother. My mother was a big Elvis fan. There was an Elvis song on the first Ghost Notes collection, so I thought, “I’ll do another one here.”
I was going to do Love Me Tender with a vocal, but every time I did a vocal it sounded really corny. So I thought, well, I’ll just strip it right back. The warmth of the acoustic guitar was where it was at: it’s such a strong melody it almost doesn’t need a vocal.
So yeah, that’s just another little tip of the hat to my mother who played all that stuff when I was growing up.
8. Shenandoah - Traditional
This one is such a classic melody, and it’s got a beautiful chord sequence - it’s so old, but it doesn’t feel old, there’s something quite modern about the way the chords move.
I always loved this song, but only recently found a way to play it with some depth - for guitarists, this is in standard tuning, with a dropped D and G, and capo’ed at the third fret.
I played it as an instrumental around the house for days. I was going to record it as an instrumental, but my wife Andrea said “that’s really nice, you should sing it”.
Always with my late mother-in-law, Julia, in mind - she loved this melody.
There’s also a great instrumental version of Shenandoah by American jazz guitarist Bill Frisell: his arrangement is so kind of loose and dreamy, and then in the middle of it Ry Cooder plays. It’s stunning.
There’s also a strange version that I cannot recommend highly enough from a Folkways compilation, by a group called the X-Seamen’s Institute. They were retired sailors who formed a choir, so obviously there’s this great choral harmony - but the guy who’s singing the lead line has this high, tremulous voice that’s just not what you expect at all.
The combination of their voices is just superb.
9. Too Close - Ry Cooder
Years ago, I used to go into the library and borrow cassettes. It was how I kind of filled in a lot of gaps in my collection without having to spend dough. I remember absolutely loving Ry Cooder, and I found his soundtrack for the film Alamo Bay.
I remember hearing the lines “I’m dancing with my baby like a brand-new pair of cheap shoes, the kind that don’t last as long as they should - you wear them out fast when it starts feeling good”, and just thinking, ‘wow, that’s fantastic’.
I actually thought this was a John Hiatt song for years, because he sings it in the film - but no, it’s Ry Cooder.
10. My Love - Paul McCartney & Wings
Paul McCartney is one of the greatest melodicists of the 20th century, and beyond, arguably. I just think his ability to write melodies is kind of unsurpassed in the pop canon.
I always loved My Love, it was special because I’d been very friendly years ago with Henry McCullough, who of course played the iconic guitar solo on the original. I was in Henry’s band, briefly, and he was very good to me: he asked me to open the show for him a few times, which were among the first times that I got up and played my own tunes.
I thought about My Love for ages, if it would it be possible to do it and to replicate Henry’s solo on acoustic guitar. I got the solo and I kind of took it apart and recalibrated it for acoustic and put it in there. So it’s a little tribute to Henry, but it’s also one of my favourite McCartney tunes.
11. Bad Sneakers - Steely Dan
I love Steely Dan. Years ago, I was lucky enough to have the Steely Dan songbook - before I loaned it to somebody and never got it back - so I worked out how to play Bad Snickers. I used to do it almost as a kind of party piece sometimes.
Because his voice is so high, it’s hard to do in the original key - but because of the way the chords work, you could do it in different tunings.
I kind of thought, “maybe it needs to be almost like a Latin acoustic version?” I tried it that way and it ended up being one of the ones that, when I went to Clive’s, he said, “Oh yeah, you’ve got to finish that.” Also, because it’s such an iconic tune, we thought people would see it on the tracklist and go, ‘Oh, I know that one.”
So yeah, I’m a big, big Steely Dan fan. I’ve been down to see them in Dublin a couple of times in their recent incarnations and they’re just still stunning.