I'm not a fan of tribute bands. They're usually not reasonable facsimiles of the real thing, and if the real thing is still in existence, what's the point?
Unfortunately, the Beatles broke up 42 years ago, and they stopped touring four years before that to become studio rats. That's a long time to rely on old "The Ed Sullivan Show" clips and other video memorabilia, all of which was recorded long before the words high-definition came into the public lexicon.
While the technology has a changed, a lot, since the Beatles were changing the world, the music they created during the time John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were an active brotherhood in the 1960s continues to grow in stature, better respected now for its relative sophistication and inherent melodicism. It holds up pretty darn well.
Fifty years is nothing by classical music standards, where pieces written in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s routinely are performed. Which makes the notion of a Beatles tribute band that performs with symphony orchestras an intriguing idea, indeed.
Or, as Benjamin Chadwick of the Classical Mystery Tour Beatles tribute band pointed out during Saturday's performance with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, the Fab Four never got to play with an orchestra.
Nor did they, he joked later, ever plug their website, which CMT did.
Saturday's show was joyously good fun — which had the orchestra's musicians clapping, singing and smiling along with the happy crowd of 1,800. It was kind of a what-if moment. Wouldn't it have been nice, to paraphrase their American rivals the Beach Boys, if they had played with an orchestra and there was a good video recording of it kicking around?
It's an intriguing premise for a concert, an idea that CMT's Jim Owen, a classically trained pianist who plays Lennon, started pursuing in 1996, now performing almost exclusively with orchestras around the country. It's nostalgic, to be sure, but also intriguing to think of what the group, whose innovative use of unusual instruments and classical orchestration, would sound like with a real orchestra.
This particular group of fake Beatles has some pedigree — most of them have performed in Beatles' musicals, such as "Beatlemania" and "In My Life." They also have an obvious reverence for the music, and who wouldn't? The Beatles not only led rock music in a dizzying number of directions, they were naturally gifted melodists with a flair for innovation and invention.
CMT follows certain fake Fab Four formulas, including costumes and wigs that evoke the early, mop top Beatles, the semi-militaristic "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" uniforms of their drug-induced psychedelic midperiod and the shaggy, long-haired look of their last years together.
What separates CMT from most of the tribute band pack is both their choice of material, leaning mostly on Beatles' songs that featured orchestration and unorthodox instrumentation, such as "Penny Lane" and "A Day in the Life," and a rare ability to deliver surprisingly accurate approximations of the recordings most of us have tattooed permanently in our brains.
Chadwick, who originally was not scheduled to be part of the band for this performance, may be one of the best McCartney impersonators around. He rivals former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Dana Carvey, in his prime, for his obvious reverence for the singer and the accuracy of his execution, from the precise vocal similarities (Chadwick's is a bit thinner) to nailing McCartney's many boyish, self-conscious mannerisms.
Chadwick, like his fellow bandmates, clearly has put some effort into this, and makes it look easy. A natural right-hander, he learned to play bass left-handed — McCartney's a southpaw — and impressively recreated Macca's melodic bass lines, which were pretty sophisticated for their time.
He was an immediate audience favorite and clearly enjoyed himself onstage and at the autograph table that attracted a long line after the show.
Owens played Lennon as somewhat aloof and reserved, but matched his nasal inflections with alarming accuracy. Facially, he looks the part. Later, when he donned a white suit and long wig, it conjured an image of the Beatle as an emerging radical, far from the cute mop top, and the target of paranoid U.S. authorities who tried to deport him for his politics long after the Beatles departed.
His shining moment came on "A Day in the Life," the Beatles' dramatic ode to a dead friend that was one of the most arresting songs the band ever fashioned once it became a fulltime studio group. Owen recreated Lennon's trippy spiral vocal as the hyper Klein and orchestra gamely tackled the mounting discordant tension that gives the song its drama. It ended the first half of the show and drew an immediate standing O from the crowd.
Drummer Chris Camilerri, a touring veteran who has played with Joe Walsh and Peter Noone, didn't look like Ringo so much, but honed to Starr's beat-oriented style and got some Ringo-style love when he tackled his vocals on "With a Little Help From My Friends" and the obscure "White Album" lullaby "Good Night."
Guitarist John Brosnan, the only Englishman in the group, evoked Harrison's sense of quiet reserve. While his solos lacked Harrison's fluidity, his vocals on "Something" and "Here Come the Sun" were well within the ballpark.
The members of the orchestra were more than up to the task and, thanks to being miked, were able to compete with the louder, electrified instruments. The orchestra played with enthusiasm and precision, save a couple of blown notes in the brass section (an errant trumpet on "Penny Lane" led Chadwick to laugh). It no doubt fed off the audience's obvious appreciation and Klein's obvious adrenalized energy.
El Paso historically was overlooked by rock's most important and influential artists in the '60s and '70s. The Beatles never played here. The Stones didn't make it until 1994, and again in 2006, well past their prime as a hit-making recording band.
It's no surprise that tribute acts, even lame ones, go over here. They fill a void. But few in that wretched subgenre of pop music strive for the kind of high musical standards and accuracy that Owens' band does. As a bit of a purist who grew up a child of the British Invasion, I don't suffer Beatles or many other tribute bands lightly, but there was little suffering during their two-hour, 27-song performance.
EPSO doesn't do enough pops programming, but hopefully the success of this one will prompt more, including — and I can't believe as a tribute-band hater that I'm saying this — a return by this bunch in a few years. Just pass on the Elvis impersonators.