Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Beatles Tribute Groups: We Saw Two of the Very Best in July 2010

As a lifelong Beatles fanatic (they're still my favorite group of all time, and I'm just old enough to have actually experienced them when they were actually "current"), for some reason I had never gotten into attending any of the concerts where musicians imitate the Beatles (probably the most famous by name is various Beatlemania cast members). I assumed that it was impossible to do and that it would be such a cheap imitation that I wouldn't enjoy it. I had never even considered attending one before. But my opinion of "fake Beatles groups" rapidly changed about a month ago.

The Simon and Garfunkel concert that we had bought tickets for was canceled (so was U2, till June 2011!), and I was looking for alternate concerts that we could attend as a "consolation prize." I ran across (in the Ticketmaster listings that I receive in my e-mail) a group called 1964 - The Tribute (see their website and blog). They've been doing this since 1984. Curious, I looked up their website to see if they at least looked like the Beatles, and how close the music could be. On the website there were You Tube videos.

Once I watched those I was quite pleasantly surprised at how well they played the music, and was hooked. We saw this group on July 2nd, and also went to another concert last night: The Fab Four (who began in 1997; see their website). I also looked up the latter's videos after I saw that they were coming to town, too. Based on the videos, my wife and I both gave them the slight edge. I was literally amazed at both groups (by the videos, before the concerts): how well they do what they do.

Going to both concerts was great fun on several levels. First, there is the music, which has its own inherent appeal. It is a fantastic experience to hear it live, and for fleeting moments to believe that you are actually hearing the real thing (just as movies can create an illusion that we are actually "in" the scene or place of the movie). Secondly, there is the acting element involved. It's very enjoyable seeing how well they do (both the mannerisms and the in-between-songs whimsical banter). It's like being at a play where musicians are portrayed (or watching a biographical movie). The third interesting element was comparing the two groups with each other.

In my opinion, it was a mixed bag. My wife definitely liked The Fab Four better (based mostly on the overall concert experience). I like different things about both groups. I thought that 1964 played the music superbly. They were dead on: as close as humanly possible (I'm convinced) to re-create live Beatles songs. The resemblance was almost beyond belief. Exact sounds were replicated with the greatest of care. For example, the twangy end of A Hard Day's Night, with the twelve-string guitar, and the wonderful rockabilly-ish She's a Woman, and the harmonies and overall combined sound. If you close your eyes, it seemed like the actual records were playing. Ticket to Ride was marvelous (The Fab Four didn't play that one).

The Fab Four also replicated the sound well, but I thought they got it about 90% accurate, whereas the other band achieved a musical result about 98-99% identical to the original songs. Ironically, both actually sound more like the Beatles studio recordings than the Beatles did themselves, when they played live (even considered apart from all the girls maniacally screaming), because they are aiming for exact reproduction. It's clearly a labor of love.


But there were equally remarkable musical moments last night, too, with The Fab Four. They go through the entire Beatles career, whereas 1964 - The Tribute only does songs from the 1964-1966 period (e.g., splendid performances of the Revolver cuts And Your Bird Can Sing, Yellow Submarine, and Taxman), and don't change costumes.

The Fab Four had the better "Ringo" of the two (Rolo Sandoval). Strawberry Fields was a standout performance for him on the drums. He sang more like Ringo than Terry Manfredi of 1964 did. But Manfredi was a more than adequate drummer and shook his head more like Ringo does. They both look like Ringo to a roughly equal degree, though in different ways.

The Fab Four "John" (Ron McNeil) sounded more like Lennon, but the 1964 "John" (Mark Benson) did significantly better at the on-stage mannerisms and (but not by as much) the banter. Benson mimics more accurately the distinctive Lennon up-and-down motion of his legs when he sings. Neither one bore all that striking a resemblance to John Lennon (Benson looks more like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones), but it was close enough and one got used to it after a half hour or so. Thus, it is roughly equal in this respect.

McNeil looked relatively more like him as the night went on, however, with the mustache and sideburns (Sgt. Pepper period) and really long hair and white suit (l1968-1969). But you still had to squint or bend your perception a bit to believe that you were seeing the real person. Both he and Paul last night (The Fab Four) were too short; I noticed that a lot and it was probably the biggest disconnect (three of the Beatles were 5'10" or 5'11" -- with Ringo about 5'9").

The two Pauls were both excellent, with all the mannerisms, expressions, animated cheerfulness, sideways head-bobbing, charm, "cuteness", movements of the mouth all down pat. They both looked as much like Paul as anyone would or could, and even played left-handed bass (well enough musically, to be convincing). The 1964 "Paul" (a fellow Michigander named Todd Rainey, who is actually temporarily replacing the original "Paul" and co-founder, Gary Grimes) had the better voice on the real rockers, but the Fab Four Paul (Ardy Sarraf) did an excellent job as well. Sarraf was much more animated in his interactions with the crowd. That was his biggest advantage. But all in all it is about a "tie" here, too.

The Fab Four wins out (by a considerable margin) on crowd impact, charisma, and the excitement factor. That was my biggest criticism of 1964, but it was nowhere near even a disappointment, and the superior quality of their music and the wittier onstage banter balanced that out. The Fab Four do a lot better at the "show" and "entertainment" aspects, whereas 1964 was better musically (especially in instrumental sound, led by the lead guitar). The Fab Four even had a guy who imitated Ed Sullivan (Jerry Hoban), which was a lot of fun, and provided a comedy / slapstick element.

Comparing the two Harrisons was great fun, too. The 1964 "George" (Tom Work) was the better instrumentalist and singer of the two, but you had to strain to make the looks match (he looks a lot more like Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones than Harrison). He did well imitating the mannerisms, particularly when standing still. It looked right when he and "Paul" were singing at the same microphone, as they did in the early days. It conjured up that familiar image.

But with Gavin Pring of the Fab Four it was downright eery, uncanny; spine-tingling. He's a dead ringer for George (he's even from Liverpool!) and he was a master of the late guitarist's mannerisms: especially the characteristic ways (early) George would suddenly look up into the crowd and move his head around, and break out in a smile unexpectedly. His body build was exactly the same. He was the right height, had the skinny legs, and looked considerably younger than Tom Work (the Beatles broke up before any of them were 30 years old). He knew how to stand just right, with the bend of the knee and toe-tapping (my childhood friend and I used to imitate the different ways they stood and would use badminton rackets for guitars, back in 1964-1965. Ahh, the fun . . .).

On several occasions I had goose bumps and my brain came awful close to being tricked: as if I were seeing the real person. As the night went on, it got even better. When they donned the Sgt. Pepper outfits and he had the mustache and a much more serious , stoic demeanor, it was as if George Harrison had risen from the dead or we had been transported back in time: absolutely astounding.

I was greatly moved by the performance of the middle-period "psychedelic" songs (Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums of 1967) and was thrilled at what I was seeing and hearing. The height of that feeling was the astonishing performance of A Day in the Life. For a moment or two, I was there: at a concert even the real Beatles never played (as they had stopped touring by then). But it felt like one was witnessing the Beatles playing in 1967.

I don't think I've ever experienced anything quite like it: to have music that one loves and the musicians who played it reproduced so amazingly, with minute accuracy. These guys (both groups) truly have the spirit of the Beatles. I think that's the best way to describe it. It's as if the group is willed back into existence when they perform.

Both groups played everything onstage: no tapes or gimmicks. The Fab Four recreated all of the various sounds of the Beatles more musically complex middle period with synthesizers (such as the original mellotron at the beginning of Strawberry Fields and the tremendous orchestra build-up in A Day in the Life).

Not as many songs from the Beatles last period were played by The Fab Four (oddly, none from The White Album). Here Comes the Sun was slightly off, but adequate. They did a rollicking Get Back, a wildly rocking Revolution, and best of all (in the encore), Hey Jude.

During the latter the whole crowd was clearly sentimental to the max, waving their hands back and forth. We were back in 1968. I was ten, then, but I can remember when Hey Jude came out just like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, Let it Be was absent (one of my very favorites).

Neither concert was all that expensive. 1964 was just $10 for the lawn seats and $20 for regular seating (both were at outdoor amphitheaters). The Fab Four cost $7 and $17. We got an additional break by receiving vouchers that made the tickets only $5 or $10, with no additional $3 parking fee, either. We wound up saving $20. And when we bought regular seating tickets, the guy showed me the seating chart, and I thought we would be way in the back, almost to the grass, as usual. But it was the front: the fourth row!!

Someone had released tickets at the last moment. We had gotten there an hour before the concert started. Well worth it! That was the closest I ever remember being at a concert. Once we saw a play in the second row, and an NBA game in the fourth row behind one of the baskets (thanks to a "connection": those tickets would have cost $450 each).

If you are a Beatles fan, I strongly recommend seeing either of these groups (and there are probably other ones that do a good job, too: check out You Tube videos). You won't be disappointed and will likely be thrilled and wonderfully entertained and transported to another era, as we were.


I.M Fletcher said...

Sounds like good shows! Although, I'm afraid I've always been a Beach Boys fan, rather than the Beatles :)

Dave Armstrong said...

I've seen the Beach Boys twice (once with Brian Wilson), and Brian Wilson solo. They're right up with my favorites, too.

Dave Armstrong said...