Thursday, June 04, 2015
In early 1969, Paul McCartney sat down with his fellow Beatles and tried to convince them that they should go back on tour, something the band hadn’t done since August 1966 as they concentrated instead on studio recording. As Philip Norman wrote in “Shout,” his 1980 biography of the band, McCartney felt the Beatles, by ceasing to tour, “had broken faith with the public to which, fundamentally, they owed everything.”
But except for a brief rooftop concert that became part of the 1970 film “Let It Be,” the Beatles never did play live again — in part because of tensions in the band, and in part because many of their later recordings had arrangements that were too complex to be produced live with existing technology.
But take modern concert sound systems, and five veteran musicians who are all confirmed Beatlemaniacs, and you have the recipe for staging live versions of “A Day in the Life,” “You Never Give Me Your Money, “I Am the Walrus” and other hits from the Beatles’ later career. That’s the work of the Fab Faux, which plays plenty of cuts from the early Beatles catalogue as well.
Of course, there’s been no shortage of Beatle cover bands over the years. But members of the Fab Faux, which formed in New York City in the late 1990s, say they’ve long made the Beatles’ music and spirit the focus of their sound. They don’t do theatrics: There are no mop-top wigs, collarless jackets or psychedelic Sgt. Pepper costumes in their shows.
What the band does offer is likely the most faithful recreation of the textures of the Beatles’ records — a level of detail built by taking the songs apart riff by riff and putting them back together, complete with the dynamic vocals and harmonies that made the Beatles the most influential pop music group in history.
As Rolling Stone put it in a 2005 article, “The Faux invigorate the artistry of even the Beatles’ most intricate studio masterpieces with top chops and Beatlemaniac glee.”
The band will do that Saturday at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst when they play the last album the Beatles recorded, “Abbey Road,” in its entirety, along with additional selections from the Beatle songbook. They’ll be joined on some of those cuts by other musicians — a string section, the Cream Tangerines, and the Hogshead Horns.
In a phone call from New York, Rich Pagano, the Fab Faux’s drummer and one of the group’s vocalists, said the band was initially drawn to the Beatles’ later music, the songs they recorded after they’d stopped touring.
“That was the music they’d never played live, the stuff everyone would have loved to hear but never had the chance to,” he said. “Then we started working our way back to the earlier stuff, which in a way is more difficult — technically it may be easier to play, but it takes a lot of energy to get it right, to capture the kind of excitement it generated.”
Whether capturing the early Beatles’ sound or matching what Pagano calls their later “studio savvy,” the Fab Faux has the musical expertise to get it right. In addition to Pagano, the band includes bassist Will Lee, guitarist Frank Agnello, and guitarists/keyboardists Jimmy Vivino and Jack Petruzelli. They even recreate something of the Beatles’ symmetry: Agnello, like Paul McCartney, is a left-handed player.
Their tours have taken them across the country and overseas, as well. They’ve headlined at several annual Beatles festivals in the place it all started — Liverpool, England.
All the members contribute vocals; all are music veterans, with extensive experience playing, producing and recording. Lee is the longtime bassist for the orchestra on “The David Letterman Show”; Vivino is music director for Conan O’Brien. Collectively, the band members have gigged with a virtual Who’s Who of the rock, country and jazz worlds: Patti Smith, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Rosanne Cash, Marshall Crenshaw, Ray Davies, Levon Helm, Joan Osborne and many others.
How’d they do that?
Pagano recalls being on tour in the late 1990s with Lee, a huge fan of the Beatles, when the bass player said to him, “You know, you’ve got a lot of Ringo in your (drum) sound” and told him he was looking to start a Beatles tribute band, an idea he’d also discussed with Vivino, at that time a neighbor of Lee in New York.
At first, Pagano says, he wasn’t sure of the plan, but it grew on him. “I’d never been in a tribute band, but after Will asked me a bunch of times about it, I thought, ‘Why would I say no to this guy? He’s a great bass player, he loves the Beatles, and so do I.’ ”
After the other members came on board, Pagano says, they all sat down together with their collections of Beatle bootleg albums and outtakes, which often featured early versions of songs, or recordings that would isolate a particular instrument or vocal harmony in a way that made it easier to determine how the group built the finished song.
“We’d sit in a circle with headphones on and say, ‘Oh, that’s what he did’ or ‘Why are they grabbing those chords?’ ” Pagano said. “The idea was to get (our playing) as close to the original as we could.”
Today, he adds, it’s easier to do this because many of these stripped-down and isolated tracks are available on the Internet. “There’s really no excuse for getting it wrong now.”
Covering an album like “Abbey Road” poses its own challenges, Pagano notes, because it’s vocally rich, with intricate harmonies and multi-tracked vocals on several songs. In addition, some cuts, particularly on the extended medley that was on side two of the original album, have multiple guitar parts, with a mix of electric and acoustic tracks that call for the guitarists to make quick changeovers on stage.
Also, the strings and brass that are part of some of the songs make it tougher to balance the overall sound and the vocals.
“You really have to be at the top of your game,” Pagano said. “It’s so challenging. The first time we did it live, I was out of breath and in tears at the end — it was that emotional. It was like we’d climbed Mount Everest.”
When it comes to the vocals, the Fab Faux has a pretty democratic approach — lead duties are often determined by who most wants to sing a song, though Pagano says his voice lends itself best to John Lennon’s compositions. “Jimmy and I have large Italian noses, so we tend to be a bit nasal,” he said with a laugh. “I love McCartney’s songs, too, but when I sing them I sound like Pete Townsend.”
For a performance that aired on “The Howard Stern Show” several years ago, the band was filmed live in the studio, playing most of side two of “Abbey Road.” Seeing and listening to it offers a good example of how vocal duties are divvied up. On “You Never Give Me Your Money,” for instance, a song originally sung by Paul McCartney, Agnello, Vivino, Petruzelli and Pagano all take turns singing the lead on the song’s four distinctive parts.
As much as the Fab Faux musicians have dedicated themselves to playing accurate versions of Beatle songs, Pagano says, he likes to think that after their extensive study of what he calls the “Beatle language, cadence and groove,” they’ve also brought their own personalities and styles to the music — whether through additional solos on some cuts or variations on the vocals.
“We’ve always approached the music with total respect and love,” he said. “But we also want to make it as fresh as we can.”
Dave Marsh, a longtime rock critic and music writer, agrees with that approach. He once wrote that the Fab Faux musicians have a tough job, but “they pull it off damn well. All rock bands want to be like the Beatles; these guys have the nerve to BE the Beatles. Amazingly, they’re so good at it you learn new things about the originals.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fab Faux will perform Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Tickets cost $60, $55 and $20; $20, $15 and $10 for For Five College, GCC and STCC students, and those under 18. A $75 non-discounted ticket includes premium seating and a meet-and-greet reception. To reserve, call the box office at 545-2511 or visit fineartscenter.com.