A Beatles Tribute
When: August 10, 2013
Where: Fox Theatre, Redwood City, California
The problem with trying to recreate Beatles music live is that after 1966 even the Fab Four themselves never ventured onto a concert stage.
Sir George Martin ("The Fifth Beatle") provided ever more elaborate orchestral, overdubbed and radiophonic arrangements that, combined with the talents of the Beatles themselves, made it nigh on impossible to perform the majority of their work live, from "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" onwards.
And still, it is entirely appropriate that the White Album Ensemble should perform a wide-ranging selection of Beatles songs with the backing of the Redwood Symphony, starting the show with "A Little Help From My Friends."
Although the album "Revolver" contains an even mixture of up-beat and sentimental songs, the White Album Ensemble chose to play mainly the sentimental ones "Eleanor Rigby," "Yesterday" and "For No One."
Paul McCartney in his 20s set a pretty high bar for vocals that even he at 71 (coincidentally performing in San Francisco at Outside Lands) has a hard time recreating; Richard Bryant does OK, but is much better on the rocky numbers than the slow ones. However, with "Got To Get You Into My Life," the singer and the band sprang to life, and the Redwood Symphony started flexing some of its considerable orchestral muscle.
The White Album Ensemble started in Santa Cruz in 2010 as a dream to recreate The Beatles "White Album" in its entirety in a theater setting. From there the group expanded its repertoire to the other Beatles albums, and started performing with different combinations of horns, strings and whatever other instruments were required to recreate that classic Beatles sound.
To show how tough that is, the band on Saturday had two keyboards, three guitars, as many as five vocals, plus drums and bass guitar. And, of course the Redwood Symphony, helping to fill the entire Fox Theater stage. There may have been a few in the wings that I didn't see.
After some "Sgt. Pepper" and "Revolver," we moved to the "Magical Mystery Tour" album, which in the United States included the singles "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."
It was at this point that I started looking around at the audience. Although the average age was well into the 50s (and a few gray hairs too!), I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of young people as well. Some had brought young children, and there were a few teenagers and twentysomethings, showing how Beatles music crosses the generations. And with "Hello Goodbye," everyone was clapping along.
The "Magical Mystery Tour" album contains some of The Beatles' best-loved and most complex tracks, and it was here that the Redwood Symphony really started to earn is keep.
The trumpet solo on "Penny Lane" is iconic (and not easy), but the Symphony's trumpet player, Steve Ruppenthal, pulled it off flawlessly. The Ensemble and the Symphony really started to jell on "Strawberry Fields Forever," and by "I Am The Walrus" they had the whole audience behind them.
I loved the recorder solo on "Fool on the Hill," performed by Dr. Eric Kujawsky conductor of the Redwood Symphony, who also played saxophone on four numbers, and chimes on "When I'm 64."
Ringo Starr has had a mixed press among musicians for his ability, but he knew how to keep a beat amongst all the other stuff that was going on around him. He really came to the fore in the "Abbey Road" track "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End," and White Album Ensemble's Trey Sabatelli brought all his chops with him for this track. The drums only stand out on a few bars, but they're central to the feel of the track, and led into some great guitar work by Stephen Krilanovich.
As the proud owner of an autographed copy of the "White Album," I was a little disappointed not to hear more of it, but Omar Spence's John Lennon vocals on "Imagine" and "Across The Universe" were spot on. I always find the line "Nothing's going to change my world" to be thought-provoking. It's either arrogant and self-centered, or just naïve and child-like especially considering that The Beatles really did change a lot of people's worlds.
Omar Spence did a great job on the plaintive "A Day in the Life," but the real climax of the show was Stephen Krilanovich's guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." George Harrison said that the other Beatles showed no interest in the song, until he brought his friend Eric Clapton into the studio, after which the song took off. And it certainly took off on Saturday.
Playing Beatles songs can be a mixed bag you're guaranteed a warm reception, but only if you get it right. Everyone is listening for their favorite part, those musical nooks and crannies that George Martin coaxed out of the Fab Four and the hoards of accompanying musicians. The White Album Ensemble and the Redwood Symphony got it right all the time, and many times I felt transported back to the days of "Sgt. Pepper" and the "Magical Mystery Tour," when nothing was going to change my world.