Music News & Reviews

Everybody wants to be the Beatles

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Top left, Come Together: The Beatles Concert Experience. Top right, Abbey Road -A Tribute to The Beatles.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Top left, Come Together: The Beatles Concert Experience. Top right, Abbey Road -A Tribute to The Beatles.

There are hundreds of Beatles bands out there, performing Beatles music and sporting funny hairdos. It’s like the Beatles walked into a clone-making machine — and then their clones walked in right behind them.

Except, of course, they’re not really The Beatles — they just play them onstage as tribute bands.

“They all essentially do the same thing,” said Jeremy Dawson, who performs in Come Together: The Beatles Concert Experience. “They dress up, put on wigs and play Beatles songs.”

More than 40 years after the Beatles split up, it’s actually much easier to see a live Beatles show in San Luis Obispo County than it was when the Fab Four were still cranking out hits. In the space of a month, two tribute bands will perform here — Come Together: The Beatles Concert Experience at the Performing Arts Center on Saturday, and Abbey Road — A Tribute to the Beatles at the Clark Center on Oct. 29.

And that’s after the Fab Four — The Ultimate Tribute played the Mid-State Fair this summer; after Abbey Road performed a musical, “In My Life,” at the Clark Center last spring, and after Yesterday — A Tribute to the Beatles performed at the Clark Center last year.

“There are so many around, it’s hard to keep track,” said Axel Clarke, who portrays Ringo Starr in the Abbey Road group coming to the Clark Center. “I think there’s actually four Abbey Roads across the United States, actually.”

Plenty of interest

While the Beatles stopped playing concerts to focus on recording in 1966, the death of John Lennon in 1980 guaranteed the band would never perform live again. So tribute bands offer the next best thing: Groups that look and sound like the mop tops, speaking in Liverpool accents and performing beloved hits like “Hey Jude,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “A Day in the Life.”

Given the continued popularity of the world’s greatest rock band, there’s no shortage of fans willing to see faux Beatles.

“We’ve been to Japan six times, we’ve been to Hong Kong twice,” Don Bellezzo, the founder of Yesterday, told The Tribune last year. “We played in every state except Alaska and Montana. We’ve played out in Guam a couple of times.”

While there are many tribute bands out there, there isn’t cutthroat competition among them, said Erik Fidel, who helps manage Come Together and plays drums in The Fab Four.

“It’s kind of a fraternity,” he said.

In fact, he said, if one tribute band needs a replacement for the night, they’ll often call on another band for a pinch hitter.

“You don’t even need to say, ‘Hey, can you find me a bass player or a guitar player?’ It’s like, ‘Hey, can you find me a George Harrison or a Paul McCartney?’ It’s kind of funny and ridiculous at the same time.”

Being friends, tribute bands often hone their act by watching others perform.

“It really does boil down to everyone in this business wanting to spread the greatest music ever recorded, which is The Beatles’,” Fidel said.

Accuracy is key

Still, the quality of tribute bands ranges. There are the pub bands, who mostly sing the songs; the midrange groups, which get a little more serious but still need to work day jobs; and the touring bands that make a career out of being Beatles.

And the more serious a band gets, the more accurate the crowds are going to expect them to be.

The bass player in Clarke’s band, for instance, had to teach himself to play left-handed, because that’s how Paul McCartney plays.

“People kept giving him crap,” Clarke said. “ ‘You’re good but not a lefty.’ ”

As drummers, both Clarke and Fidel make sure to capture Starr’s characteristic posture, sitting high up on a stool and hitting the cymbals with sideways shots.

As they get increasingly authentic, tribute bands purchase expensive Beatles attire — a good Sgt. Pepper uniform might cost up to $1,000 — and vintage instruments, getting more specific about things like the types of buttons they use.

“Every now and then you step back and go, ‘Oh my God — I’m a complete Beatles Trekkie nerd,’ ” Clarke said.

Like many tribute musicians, Clarke started out in other musical groups — including an Oingo Boingo knockoff. But Clarke, who has a B.A. and masters in music from Long Beach State, has also played with symphonies and in musicals. And he teaches percussion part-time at the high school and college level.

“I didn’t see my path leading to being a Ringo impersonator,” he joked. “But here I am.”

They’re all big fans

While performing in a Beatles tribute band might recall silly images of Elvis impersonators, most of those in the so-called Beatle Biz will tell you the same thing: They’re huge Beatles fans.

Dawson, who taught himself to play both piano and guitar with Beatles books as a kid, had actually gone to several Come Together shows before approaching the band with a suggestion.

“Before we met, they were just a four-piece doing just the early Beatles,” he said. “I just said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing more songs—with a keyboard player?’ ”

So Dawson joined the band as a George Martinesque fifth Beatle, allowing the band to play more complicated pieces that include horns and organ.

While both Abbey Road and Come Together feature musicians in their 20s and early 30s — basically, the ages of the Beatles when they were still a band — some tributes don’t know when to quit, Fidel said.

“There are guys that have been doing it a long time and maybe shouldn’t be putting on the wigs and acting like 25-year-olds,” he said. “There’s a time to bow out. I don’t think you’re doing the Beatles justice if you can’t hit those notes anymore and you’re obviously wearing a really bad wig.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.