When it comes to this show, which I attended on July 22 at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT, I find myself walking a fence and not knowing which way to fall. When I saw the ad for "A Walk Down Abbey Road: A Tribute to the Beatles," I thought that it was insanely cool that some of rock's blue-bloods were getting together to acknowledge the greatest band who ever walked the face of planet Earth. When I say blue-bloods, I mean the likes of John Entwistle (The Who), Alan Parsons (The Alan Parson's Project), David Pack (Ambrosia). Ann Wilson (Heart), and Todd Rundgren. No small amount of talent there.
As we waited for the concert to start, I jokingly commented that it'd be funny if they played one Beatles tune and then launched into a concert filled with their own songs. Then the band came onstage and opened with "Magical Mystery Tour" Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ followed by a Todd Rundgren song, a Heart song, an Alan Parsons song, a Who song, an Ambrosia song. Uh-oh.
My cynical side took over. I suddenly saw this group of blue-bloods not as royalty at all, but insecure artists who felt they had to trick audiences into attending a concert. In my mind's eye, I could see them, six months ago, sitting around a table, trying to come up with a way to get people to buy tickets. None of them, apparently, can afford to tour as solo artists. None apparently can even afford to tour with their own bands on a multiple bill. Instead, they decided to come together (Beatles reference there) as a single band to perform bits and pieces of their respective careers. But they had a problem. How could they bill such a band? How could they be marketed? Who would the audience be?
They needed to find a way to unify the show, a theme onto which they could all hang their musical hats. "I know!" one of them must have yelled (Todd maybe?), "Let's do some Beatles stuff and call it a Beatles tribute!" Huzzahs all around and "A Walk Down Abbey Road" was born.
Now, don't get me wrong. I have no problem with these great artists getting together and playing a combined list of greatest hits from their respective careers. We're talking some significant careers here. But calling the show a tribute to the Beatles as a marketing ploy is quite the opposite of a tribute. It's disrespectful, not only to us as music consumers, but also -- and more importantly so -- to the musical legends they supposedly admire. The word "tribute" suddenly comes to mean "gimmick." And if there's one thing the Beatles aren't, it's a gimmick.
Yes, the second half of the show was comprised of all Beatles songs. But one couldn't help feeling that that was the obligatory part of the concert, the segment the band wanted to get over with as soon as possible so they could meet their obligation as a Beatles tribute tour and get back to their hotels to catch up on some sleep.
But how was the show, you ask? A lot of my cynicism comes from the fact that there was little chemistry and energy on the stage. Worse, the band was not well rehearsed. They blew the ending to at least two songs, and at other times looked at each other with expressions that said "What are we supposed to do now?" The mix was poor, not least because there were often five (FIVE!) guitars being strummed all at once -- and that's not counting bass. If I had to describe the show in five words or less, I would say "competent, but uninspired."
Of all the performers, Ann Wilson was the one who appeared to enjoy what she was doing and the only one who openly acknowledged the Beatles' immeasurable contribution to music. Said Wilson, "A lot of you may not have even been born when these songs were written, but that doesn't matter, because these songs are now a part of everyone's DNA." (The only other performer to mention the Beatles was Alan Parsons, who sent well wishes to George Harrison, who is ill with cancer and almost certainly terminally so) [News reports issued since this column was received have disputed the grave seriousness of Harrison's conditionÃ¢â‚¬Â¦more later -ed.] Wilson was a true performer who never forgot her audience. And that voice! Whether she was belting out classic rockers like Heart's "Barracuda" or crooning ballads like the Beatles's "Hey, Jude," Wilson was the consummate professional, the true star of the show. Whenever Wilson got her turn at the microphone, the performances soared.
Hits like the Who's "The Real Me" and "My Generation" were also high points in the show, with the band bringing up the energy to something approaching hot-and-sweaty rock. John Entwistle was Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ well Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ John Entwistle. In the Who, the on-stage Entwistle was the conservative performer who balanced out the rest of the band's crazy antics. He stayed in the background, content just to do his job. The same was true in this show. However, when he got his chance to ply his trade as the focal performer, his bass lines roared.
Todd Rundgren was in good voice and slipped in performances of some of his bigger hits, including, of course, "Hello, It's Me." As with all of the performers, Rundgren's song choices were all from the "safe" side of his career, eschewing the more progressive or experimental tracks he recorded as a solo artist or with his progressive-rock band Utopia. No surprise there, I suppose. Rundgren's guitar playing was spot on, as always. Rundgren is one of the most underrated guitarists in the business. Unfortunately, this wizard, this true star, has a goofy side that is sometimes amusing, but just as often idiotic. And, by the way, Todd, "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is not code for LSD, but rather the way one of Lennon's kids described a painting.
David Pack has always had a terrific voice, and, like Rundgren, is a masterful guitarist. Pack's band, Ambrosia, started off in the 70s as a wonderfully quirky prog rock band, but after two albums, turned towards straight pop. As you can guess, the Ambrosia songs in this concert's set list came from the straight-pop side of Ambrosia's career. Still, Pack's singing is always a blast to hear and his tasteful guitar solos added a lot of meat to many of the less energetic numbers.
Alan Parsons, like John Entwistle, is another musician who seems to like the sidelines. In fact, he's easy to dismiss if you don't pay attention. Most people will know Parsons' work with his band, The Alan Parsons Project, and the concert song list included a few of their biggest hits, not the least of which was "Eye In The Sky." Through most of the concert Parsons did little more than sing background (even on his own songs, which were sung by David Pack), play a little acoustic guitar, and diddle with hand percussion. Then he got the solo spotlight for his version of the Beatles' "Blackbird." Although he apologized for not being a lead singer, his acoustic solo rendition of "Blackbird" was a show highlight. His vocal was eerily McCartney like, and his acoustic guitar work was flawless. Parsons has no reason at all to apologize for his singing. This man should take the mic more often.
Still, while each musician's individual performances were great, they rarely jelled as a band. There were only maybe a half a dozen songs (usually the Who and Heart numbers) that smoked the way they should have, considering the potential on the stage. Moreover, the song choices were too obvious, too safe, and not particularly dramatic. This was true for the Beatles portion of the show, as well. We got to hear hits like "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "Rain," "Hey, Jude, "and "Lady Madonna," but where was "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," "Helter Skelter," or "Come Together"? The closest this band came to the more artful side of the Beatles was their performance of the suite of songs from Abbey Road, starting with "Golden Slumbers." That suite showed these folks could do a tribute with panache and skill. But for most of the show, it was just business as usual and another hard day's night.