Magical Mystery Tour
It started as a lark three years ago with Baldwin Wallace University students Jake Mercer and Dave McHenry looking to bring some variety to their steady diet of classical, opera, show tunes and traditional musical fare. Why not a Beatles cover band? And with all the orchestral players handy at the university’s Music Conservatory, why not Abbey Road?
Sometimes a good idea gets totally out of hand.
Success led to a second year, this time reproducing note for note the classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band, and this time to a fire-hazard overflow crowd. Now in it’s third year, the 2013 BW Beatles Festival has been crowned “The Oldest Collegiate Beatles Festival in the Nation,” after BW’s esteemed Bach Festival’s slogan, “The Oldest Collegiate Bach Festival in the Nation,” and decided to take on the hit-laden Magical Mystery Tour. By the time these songs were released, The Beatles themselves had retired from live performance, in part because these unsurpassed recordings by George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, processed, overdubbed, and endlessly edited, literally could not be performed live.
Your Mother Should Know
Considering that most of these students could honestly sing, “Let’s all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before our mother was born,” it’s obvious that the appeal of The Beatles has only grown stronger over time. And there is no shortage of Beatles tribute bands. Bands that specialize in just the Early Beatles’ mop top guitar sound. Bands that try to get the whole look just right, down to left-handed bass players plucking Hofner guitars, just like Paul McCartney. There’s even a choir of Hungarian ventriloquists who cover the Beatles. One of the best, The Fab Faux, perform with a 3-person horn section and 2-person string section.
What sets the BW BeatlesFest effort apart, besides their obvious talent, is the size of their ensemble, allowing them to perform every sound effect, guitar lick, vocal harmony, orchestral riff and solo part effortlessly. In assembling 39 players, plus Roderick O’Toole offering an appropriately smarmy introduction as tour guide Jolly Jimmy, the BW group is able to include full orchestra (16 strings, 9 brass/woodwinds, accordion), vintage synthesizer sounds, patented Beatles four-part vocal harmonies, and even the archetypal piccolo trumpet solo in “Penny Lane,” played flawlessly by faculty member John Brndiar.
Strawberry Fields Forever
Directed from the stage by multi-instrumentalists Kevin Johnson (guitar, trumpet, conductor), vocalist James Penca and Patrick Hyzy (piano, guitar, vocals), the ensemble kicked off an energetic “Magical Mystery Tour after Jolly Jimmy’s intro. It became immediately apparent that perfect reproduction of the complicated, overdubbed pastiche that is the collection of hit singles that make up the Magical Mystery Tour was just the price of admission. That would have been a challenge, but wouldn’t have captured the joyous abandon of the best of The Beatles’ recorded performances.
Featuring dedicated singers from both BW’s esteemed Dance Theatre department (who could emote and act out the songs), and vocalists from the equally-esteemed Opera program (who could match The Beatles’ amazing vocal calisthenics effortlessly), this arrangement allowed for full chorus and “gang” vocals when needed, as at the end of “Hello, Goodbye,” and “Hey Jude.” It took everything that vocalists O’Toole, Penca, and Hyzy along with Mickey Ryan and Nick Pankuch could muster, but they managed to approximate almost perfectly what The Beatles laid down on four-track tape.
I Am The Walrus
So many individuals contributed just the right parts, but a few are worthy of additional praise. Percussionist Scott Shaughnessy used maracas, chimes, tambourine, even bottles, sometimes two instruments at once, matching the original eccentric grooves.
Even with all this going for it, the BW BeatlesFest concert of Magical Mystery Tour wouldn’t have risen above some of the finest Beatles tributes without the Ringo-like groove laid down by drummer Sarah Brooks, who spent the past year memorizing her parts. Most fully arranged and scored renditions of Beatles music are accompanied by drummers who may look like Ringo and shake their bangs like Ringo, but hardly any are capable of capturing his ephemeral groove, the unconventional tom fills, the way-behind-the-beat “feel” that makes Beatles records so unique. Brooks achieved that and singlehandedly lifted the BW BeatlesFest into the top tier.
Hey Jude, Part 1
BW Conservatory Director Susan Van Vorst deserves credit for embracing the event and offering full support, including access to the large Patrick Theatre, which was full to capacity with students waiting hours for free tix. Van Vorst even joined in on piano for the encore, “Hey Jude.”
Hey Jude, Part 2
And next year? Just as BW’s Bach Fest rotates the master’s four major works every four years (the B-Minor Mass, the St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio), the BW Beatles Festival will do the same. So tension mounted as fans pondered on the fourth Beatles album, which was announced at the conclusion of the Mystery Tour. For 2014, with a number of key students graduating, the next generation will take on The Beatles’ only double album, known as The White Album.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
You’d think they’d need more time to tackle the 30 songs make up what many believe to be The Beatles’ crowning achievement, requiring 25 guest musicians and a production team of five recording for the first time on eight tracks, to capture the imagination of the world’s greatest band. And in fact, they’ve already begun. As a preview, the ensemble performed George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” to a screaming audience.
It may not be too soon to start waiting in line now.
Review & videos by Thomas Mulready