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Cheap Trick performing the Beatles??? Has the world gone mad? Well, only a little. One must realize that Cheap Trick, formed in 1974, built quite a fan base through its own brand of using power-rock chords that emoted a hard-edge but retained enough melodic themes that attracted those on the outer currents of pop rock and punk rock. Their music does combines the tune- worthy formulaic modes of The Beatles but with an energy that speeds up without bowling over into pure ranting and screaming of those in the punk rock genre of that time. The Los Angeles Times has remarked that “Cheap Trick gained fame by twisting the Beatlesque into something shinier, harder, more American.” Your next question is: What were their biggest hits? A few include the songs “Surrender”, “I Want You to Want Me”, and “Dream Police.”
So it was with ardent curiosity when the available ticket brought me to the Hilton Theater, my favorite venue to see them perform Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Having seen Paul McCartney in sold-out arenas four times and never hearing anything as elaborate as a 21 piece orchestra, 6 backup vocalists, a children’s choir, mixed with an old rock bank that I’d thought had hit the old folks home by now, I couldn’t imagine how this escapade could be pulled off credibly. Featured guest artists included Grammy-Award winning vocalist Joan Osborne, Rob Laufer, Bill Lloyd, and Ian Ball all of whom performed in the beginning of the show before Cheap Trick entered the stage through a very clever revolving set that housed the entire orchestra 16 feet up in the air and provided three circular stages underneath them to facilitate the quick turnover to the Sgt. Pepper’s portion. As the curtain rose that set was exposed.
The orchestra opened with an absolutely beautiful symphonic medley of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Love Me Do,” and “Please, Please Me.” Ms. Osborne then took the stage and deftly sang “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and the timeless “Long and Winding Road.” The orchestra then took over and performed the classic “Eleanor Rigby.” Let me stop here a moment to comment that in the nineties I lived in Puerto Rico and had the chance to see the Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra perform Holst’s incredible symphony “The Planets.” That alone was a rare treat unto itself. The most marvelous thing of this show was to watch these players moving and thrusting their bodies into such soulful unpretentious mesmerizations of being one with the vibrations that they perfectly emitted from their instruments, that they naturally drew you into their magical mojo as an unintentional byproduct of their emotionalism and love of their craft exactly as those moments I experienced many years ago.
The engineer’s use of effects to recreate Lennon’s experiment of running his voice through a Leslie speaker for “Across the Universe” with the Las Vegas Children’s Choir was as ethereal as the original. It was truly like “a wind inside a letter box.”
And then the transition occurred and here was Cheap Trick with Rick Nielsen and his baseball cap and striped suit prancing, dancing, and irreverently swinging his guitar to the beginning of that classic album. The album that the Beach Boy’s leader Brian Wilson called the “perfect album,” the same one that he tried to compose first and gave up his quest after hearing what he perceived as the Beatles’- no the world’s – ultimate recording.
I then realized that when I read Geoff Emerick’s name on the roster as Sound Direction and Co-Producer that it all made sense. Those orchestra parts were exactly as George Martin, “the fifth Beatle” had written them in 1967. Every nuance, speck, part and parcel of each tiny inflection of this live sound mimicked that album without exception. And by the way, Mr. Emerick was the engineer for Sgt. Pepper’s back in 1967 so there was the connection to the “how” of this event.
The bonus tracks of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” “The End” and the show “encore,” “All You Need is Love,” brings the Beatles’ genius and the energy and vivaciousness of the current band playing their hearts out into focus after experiencing the beginnings of their musical careers at the top of the show. It was a wise choice than to end with just the Sgt. Pepper’s songs, as the orchestra was already there for that monumental epic, why not go out with a huge bang from their later material? Good call on the producer’s part although I wish someone had sung “Something” that perfect ode to George’s wife Patti Boyd, instead of Bill Lloyd playing lead guitar on the melody, but that is a minor complaint.
And lest I forget a huge part of this ensemble was Magic Christian, the keyboardist who provided all of McCartney’s piano parts and used his synthesizers perfectly to authenticate each track. Todd Youth on bass enthusiastically played every Mac line note-for-note and the conductor affectionately introduced as “Billy Shears” did an outstanding job putting the orchestra though it’s amazing paces this fine evening.
The most amazing part of the show came when George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” was performed. An authentic Indian ensemble appeared with Gingger Shankar (Her mother was a classical singer, and her father, L. Subramaniam, is a world renowned violinist) playing the double violin, with two sitar players, and bass and treble Tampura instruments exactly capturing this spiritual encompassment of Mr. Harrison’s experience with the music and religious aura of that nation.
The vocals of Rob Laufer were magically suited to every note of the past and this was more than just a band rehashing an old classic. The entire experience, as exacting as it was, evoked new emotional thrills by the live performances of both a rock band and orchestra blending into a dimension of past time that never was. This was a “what if” had the Beatles kept touring and attempted such an endeavor to achieve such lushness of a tracked album by being backed by a full orchestra and vocalists. It was the concert that never was performed by the seemingly most unlikely band using the most unlikely Beatles album. It worked magnificently!
I ran into people who had seen it more than once and honestly I would have gone back for seconds and thirds myself. I mean when the song Sgt. Pepper’s Reprise kicks in that rooster crowing for that split second, the madness of the orchestra of “Day in the Life” swells and then crescendos to its ultimate conclusion, and then that infamous orchestral down stroke to the tonic note, what more does one want out of a concert? It is real and it is hair-raising. I could go on and on about every small detail and the attentiveness paid to each and every one of them, but my suggestion is if you can go see it-GO! This tour will not last forever, like the original band, like any ephemeral burst of pure creativity, the moment passes quickly. Take the time and listen to what could have been, but was only preserved on tape and disc until now. It’s no cheap trick believe me.