The Beatles, more commonly known as “The White Album,” is notorious among Beatles fanatics as the Beginning of the End. It was during the tense, fractious recording sessions for this album over the summer of 1968 that the Fab Four began their almost two-year process of breaking up. After four years as the World’s Most Famous Band, and after the much-lauded “Summer Of Love” ended like a wet fart, they were all sick of each other’s crap, and bursting with their own ideas. On the White Album, each primary composer ended up treating the other three like a backing band, and indulging their most out-there, un-commercial fancies. The result was perhaps the most musically diverse and interesting album (double album, of course) The Beatles ever produced. Although not intended as such, it takes the listener on a tour of western music: straight-ahead Chuck Berry rock & roll(“Back In The USSR”–with Beach Boys harmonies for good measure), classical (“Piggies”), country (“Don’t Pass Me By”), blues (“Yer Blues”), proto-metal (“Helter Skelter”), jazz (“Honey Pie”), folk (“Blackbird”), reggae (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), Tin Pan Alley/vaudeville (“Martha My Dear”), and the lush musicals of Hollywood and Broadway (“Good Night”). Plus detours down other paths, dead-ends, and experimental wackiness.
To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the release of the White Album, Harlow’s in downtown Sacramento hosted an evening dedicated to this musical milestone on Sunday, November 23, 2008. “The White Album Show” featured 16 (mostly) local Sacramento bands, each assigned two White Album songs. The entire album of thirty-two songs would be performed in sequence, with minimal gaps between artists. (To facilitate this, all bands shared amps and a drum kit.)
It was a good, mellow crowd, skewing a little older and funkier, which is aces in my book. I have a fairly healthy (if realistic) ego, but I’ve been to shows where I’ve been the worst-looking person in the room. Everywhere around me is bangs and cheekbones and self-assuredness, and I keep hearing that old Sesame Street song “one of these things is not like the others” in my mind as I nurse my Newcastle, fully aware that every sip is contributing to the beer-gut that sets me so noticeably apart. No such worries tonight. I felt in my element, jostling cheek-by-jowl with fellow Beatles nerds and Aging Music Enthusiasts. (If I ever become the Gray-Ponytail-Silver-&-Turquoise-Bracelet-Wearing-Extreme-Aging-Music-Enthusiast, feel free to give me a talking-to, or a sharp slap across the mouth.)
It was a night for hats, though. Every third head both onstage and off was adorned with some kind of covering. I spotted only one Ironic Trucker Hat (sooo 2004) to illustrate how time marches on, but a plethora of trilbies and fedoras graced many a hipster noggin. The new rage seems to be the English driving cap. If one didn’t know any better, one would feel the crowd at Harlow’s to be heavily peppered with Cockney cabbies, each eager to give “guv’nor” a lift to Charing Cross station.
In the short time between songs, Jeanette Faith of Baby Grand filled in by playing various Beatles songs on piano. Each act was introduced by the “Tap Dancing Sign Girl” Amber Mortensen, who appeared to do very little tap-dancing, but certainly could hold the hell out of a hand-lettered sign with the band’s name on it.
After a short introductory video clip taken from the Beatles Anthology documentary, the first band hit the stage. The Broken Poet rattled the walls with spirited, primitive versions of “Back In The USSR” and “Dear Prudence.” The start of the second verse of “Back” gave us the first of about 750 lyrical gaffes of the night. I mean, really, it’s not like memorizing Shakespeare soliloquies. And you’re musicians, for Chrissakes. Shouldn’t the Beatles be embedded in your DNA? I know I’m being horribly nitpicky here. John Lennon himself was a notorious lyric-fumbler. (If you watch the Let It Be rooftop concert footage closely, you can spy a P.A. kneeling in front of him with the lyrics to his own songs on a clipboard.) Up next was another power trio, Darling Sweetheart. Like The Broken Poet, they had energy to spare and clearly loved playing the songs “Glass Onion” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which they pulled off handsomely without the sprightly piano and brass section that I originally thought was absolutely integral to the song.
Walking Spanish, a somewhat mellower act sporting a violin-player with the ubiquitous English driving cap was saddled with “Wild Honey Pie,” the fragmentary super-overdubbed doodle of McCartney’s that’s caused me to hit the “skip” button on the CD player every time. They fared better with the surreal Lennon musical comic strip “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill,” with each instrumentalist taking a turn scraping out the melody as the song eased to a close. Bright Light Fever did solid versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” I wondered how the guitarist would handle the famous Eric Clapton guest-star solo from the original “Weeps,” and the answer is: passably. Thus far, most of the bands had not radically re-arranged or re-altered the arrangements, but opted for fairly reverent interpretations, as far as their instrumental line-ups would allow. Only a handful of brave souls attempted to re-create the vaunted Beatles harmonies. (“Warm Gun” rumbled along without its famous “bang bang shoot shoot” backing vocals.)
This trend of staying faithful to the basic structure of the songs continued with Daycare’s “Martha My Dear” and “I’m So Tired.” San Diego’s The Silent Comedy began their two-song set with “Blackbird” performed as a solo acoustic number featuring their vocalist investing the lyrics with a tremulous, over-dramatic sing-whisper that did not do the song a great service. They quickly redeemed themselves when the full band hit the stage, and gave us the first truly radical re-imagining of a White Album song. With their buffalo-hunter locks and handlebar mustaches, they looked like fugitives from the set of Deadwood, or the cover of The Band’s second album. They turned “Piggies,” the George Harrison number based around a tinkling harpsichord and string section, into a barn-burning stomp that was one of the absolute highlights of the show.
Another act that definitely put their own stamp on the songs was Radio Orangevale, whose take on Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” was really the evening’s only low point. The fedora-sporting lead singer looked like he was plucked from the circa-1996 Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, used his own “vintage” microphone (which provided constant feedback squalls), and performed the song as an absolutely shameless Tom Waits “homage” (rip-off?). Like The Silent Comedy before them, Radio Orangevale pulled off a second-song save, turning “Rocky Raccoon” into Killers-style dance-rock, complete with robotic, vocoder-ized vocals. Prieta nailed an extended version of another McCartney toss-off, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” and then turned the gentle, acoustic love song “I Will” into a slow-burn reggae jam. It worked.
Fellow Idle Team trivia team members Jeannie Howell and Gillian Baldwin were up next with their band Ahoy! (also featuring Joy Stern and Julie Meyers). After a tentative start, their version of “Julia” found a sweet spot, making good use of Howell’s and Meyers’ crystal-clear voices as they swapped the lead vocal. They kicked the tempo up with “Birthday” and released balloons into the crowd, and closed out the first half of the show with a bang.
Lynus (who all looked about 15) covered “Yer Blues” and “Mother Nature’s Son” quite nicely, and were followed by San Diego’s Transfer, clad all in white for the occasion. Looking eerily like the droogs from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Transfer’s manic energy and not-inconsiderable chops crushed the back-to-back Lennon numbers “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” and “Sexy Sadie.” Saucer was a welcome contrast to all the rail-thin, frizzy-haired, arty-looking musicians that had heretofore graced Harlow’s stage. This beefy quartet looked like a bunch of steelworkers or longshoremen hitting the tavern after swing shift. They played the hell out of “Helter Skelter” and turned the delicate “Long Long Long” into an electric 4/4 rocker. Elder statesmen of Sacramento rock, Tattooed Love Dogs, gave the crowd a version of “Revolution 1” that straddled the fence between the slower, acoustic album version and the fuzzed-out rocker that was the flip side of the single “Hey Jude” (released a few months before the album.) Their version of the 1920s jazz pastiche “Honey Pie” was also pretty stellar.
And the snake-bit Stragglers. Victims of a snafu not of their making, they spent the week rehearsing “Martha My Dear” and “I’m So Tired,” which you know if you’ve been reading carefully was already ably performed by Daycare. Two hours or so before showtime, it was discovered that they were listed in the program as performing “Savoy Truffle” and “Cry Baby Cry.” They had about 90 minutes to learn two new songs, which was about one too many. Did I mention the Stragglers features Idle Timer Erik “3Dchain” Hanson? Old 3Dchain had to think fast. He solved one problem by inviting his sister, the aforementioned Jeannie Howell, onstage to perform “Savoy Truffle” with him as an a cappella duet. Sharing iPod ear buds pumping the actual song into their heads, the Hanson sibs succeeded in turning crowd bemusement into amusement, and got a pretty good clap-along going.
[An aside, if I may, about “Savoy Truffle.” WH sniffed condescendingly to me that it was a “good thing” the improvised a cappella performace was “only” “Savoy Truffle,” and thus not much of a sacrifice. Will is not the only one I’ve heard look down their nose at this George Harrison-penned track which warns of the dental dangers of eating sweets. Despite it’s goofy lyrics, it has a propulsive beat, a saucy little electric piano lick, a heavily-distorted brass section letting it rip, and a stinging guitar solo. What’s not to love? I consider it a highlight of the White Album and don’t understand all the haters.]
The Stragglers solved the “Cry Baby Cry” dilemma by performing it in a very simple, stripped-down acoustic arrangement that placed the focus on Erik’s voice. I may be biased because they’re my friends and all, but I really do think Erik and Jeannie had the best pure singing voices heard all night. It doesn’t hurt that the bearded Erik looks a little like Let It Be-era Paul McCartney.
I wish I could report that your Humble Narrator saw the last two performances of the evening, but he is reaching a Certain Age. The age where home, sweatpants, and David Letterman are more attractive than seeing a crowded club show through to the bitter end. My back was starting to ache from standing amongst the crowd for over three hours, my ears were going all cotton-y, and I had to work in the morning. So the free-jazz version of the entirely non-musical sonic collage “Revolution 9” by Race!!! and and the version of “Good Night” by David Houston & Sal Valentino that saw an actual string section take the stage went unwitnessed by me. (WH, who stuck around, said the twenty-five minute set-up for the strings before the last song was a “rhythm breaker” and pushed the show to an ungodly length, but the performance was impressive.)
Overall, it was the best evening of music I’ve seen in quite some time. Most of the bands I’ve never seen live before, and I was impressed by pretty much everyone. Kudos to Sac’s finest music rag Alive & Kicking and Jerry Perry for organizing the whole shebang. Follow the links above for more info on the artists, and if they come to your neck of the woods, check them out.