The Beatles beat by beat
Classic Albums Live plays ‘Abbey Road’ with accuracy
by Cody Calamaio, Staff Writer Wednesday, November 23, 2011
When the curtain opens for a Classic Albums Live show, the experience is less like attending a rock concert and more like dropping the needle on an “Abbey Road” vinyl.
Tired of tribute bands that “desecrate” the work of artists and put more effort into appearance than sound, Craig Martin created Classic Albums Live, a performing ensemble that stays true to the integrity of some of the greatest albums of all time by playing “note for note” with no liberties or interpretations.
“In Classic Albums Live, all the energy goes into the music,” Martin says. “We don’t bother with cheesy costumes or wigs. Our reputation is only about the sound, only about the audio.”
Performing Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore, the group’s first 45-minute set will feature The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” in its entirety, while the second half of the show will consist of songs from the rest of The Beatles catalogue.
Classic Albums Live began in Toronto in 2003 and now employs 70 musicians that perform 150 shows per year across North America, Martin says. They have performed more than 40 classic albums from artists such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Prince. In 2006, the company played the complete Beatles catalogue in a 13-hour marathon.
Although “Abbey Road” was the 11th of the 12 Beatles studio albums, it was recorded after most of their final album “Let it Be” had been created. By late 1969, when “Abbey Road” was released, the four members of The Beatles had given their last live performance, and much of their music, even before that point, was too complex to play live at the time.
With the 10-piece ensemble of the “Abbey Road” show, the addition of horns, strings and keys allows the group to accomplish live what the Fab Four were unable to do themselves, guitarist Rob Phillips says.
“There was a feeling in the ‘60s [that] if you were four guys, you were a band. They didn’t really bring extra people on stage,” says Phillips, 39, of Toronto. “We can have as many people up there as we need.”
Since Phillips previously played in a Pink Floyd tribute band, he was expected to perform a “Dark Side of the Moon” show with Classic Albums Live just days after joining.
The group’s accuracy-driven vibe was a good match for Phillips, who appreciated playing the music as it was intended, even for albums by bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that once intimidated him.
“A mild feeling of panic overcame me when I was listening to those big vocals,” Phillips says of the CSNY album “Déjà Vu.”
Keyboard player and vocalist Nicholas Hildyard believes there is room for both tribute bands and the musically-driven work that Classic Albums Live does.
“We are apples to their oranges. There is no comparison,” says Hildyard, 42, of Grand Island, Fla.
Most tribute acts put effort into transforming their performers into specific Beatles members, while Classic Albums Live will switch between a handful of singers to find the vocalist best able to encapsulate a particular song.
“There is no John and there is no Paul and there is no Ringo,” Hildyard says. “We try to find the right person for the song instead of designating the mop top of the day.”
Sometimes to stay true to what is heard on the album, it is necessary to have sound effects such as war noises, crickets or helicopters. Rather than lifting the noises off the original recordings, Marty Morin recreates and records sound effects that are synced up to a keyboard and cued live in the show.
“The sound effects are performed. It’s not a loop,” says Morin, 59, of Toronto, who will play drums and sing in the “Abbey Road” show.
Morin, who has been with Classic Albums Live since its early days, has found that the classic rock album programs have been better received than their occasional foray into more modern fare such as Nirvana and Sound Garden.
“It’s been an exploration for us; we take it really very seriously,” Morin says. “We’re trying to pick records, too, that are beautifully conceptual pieces of music.”
The accuracy the ensemble insists on even goes as far as to incorporate musical mistakes they pick up in the albums, such as slight wavers in tempos or slurs in the vocals, Morin says. Those errors, they acknowledge, are part of the beauty of the albums of a bygone era before technology existed to perfect the music.
“It’s a little nerdy, but we fish around for all these tiny glitches that we can capitalize on,” Morin says. “That’s what brings the humility to a lot of that music.”
Taking an almost academic stance about the albums they cover, Classic Albums Live has found a niche in allowing the musicianship of its performers shine rather than being concerned about visual engagement.
“We don’t talk to the audience; we don’t jump around. We walk on stage, and the first thing we do is tune just like an orchestra,” Martin says. “I maintain that this is classical music because it is enduring the test of time.”
Classic Albums Live: The Beatles Abbey Road will be performed 8 p.m. Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets range from $28 to $38. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org