On the run up to New Year's Eve, I managed to see the White Album Ensemble perform their magic two nights in a roew in Santa Cruz. The White Album Ensemble focuses on live performances of Beatles albums from the band's "post touring" era that were never performed live by the Beatles. On Thursday December 29, they played "The White Album" in its entirety and on Friday December 30, they played "Revolver" and "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
The White Album Ensemble has become famous in the San Francisco bay area, having been founded in 2003 by ex-Doobie Brothers multi-instrumentalist Dale Ockerman and bass player Tiran Porter. They've also nurtured local Santa Cruz talent, including James Durbin, who went on to American Idol fame. Durbin even joined his former band mates on stage for an encore Thursday evening.
To be fair, it's impossible to live up to the legend of the Beatles during their 1966-1970 studio era. They moved beyond the Mersey sound and created step by step a blueprint that was much about music as it was about ideas. They literally invented the psychadelic sound by turning the recording studio into an instrument with multi-track recordings, tape loops, layered harmonies. And they wrote the most beautiful, timeless songs ever: "Eleanor Rigby", "Taxman", "She Said, She Said", "Here, There, Everywhere", "Tomorrow Never Knows". That's just from 1966's "Revolver". In 1967 they raised the bar with "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" with such songs as "A Little Help from My Friends", "She's Leaving Home", "Within You Without You", "When I'm 64" and the finale, "A Day In the Life", arguably one of the greatest song ever written.
That's not to say that every song the Beatles wrote was perfect; the "White Album" in particular has its share of songs that I'd be happy to never hear again. But it also brought "Back in the USSR", "Glass Onion", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Happiness is a Warm Gun", "Blackbird", "Birthday", "Revolution", and "Savoy Truffle" to name a few. Could any band ever be this good? Could any band live up to the expectations of a live Beatles concert? No, not hardly.
But still. It's a worthy effort and the White Album Ensemble approaches the material with a love and reverence of the Beatles music that is obvious and endearing. It's truly a feat of epic proportions: note-for-note renditions of entire Beatles albums (plus a couple of singles) with all of the instruments and arrangements captured precisely, from the to the sitar of "Within You Without You" to the harp of "She's Leaving", the oboe of "When I'm 64" and the crazy orchestrated layers of "I am the Walrus". Every note is played live using real instruments.
It's hard even to conceive of how much time must go into perfecting these arrangements. As good as the arrangements are, the vocals remain a tribute. Newcomer Omar Spence, son of Moby Grape founder Skip Spence, sings with an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon. Richard Briant who sings Paul McCartney's parts does an admirable job and has a fantastic range, but no, he doesn't sound 100% like Sir Paul did when he was 25. Ken Craft does a great job on George Harrison's vocals and does some brilliant guitar work. Could anyone capture the unique timbre of Ringo Starr? Doubtful.
Despite that, when you put it all together, it works remarkebly well. Even if you're not a die hard Beatle fan, you can't help but walk out in amazement at the complexity and sophistication of these songs as well as the dedication of the musicians who put this together. If you get a chance to see them live, you won't regret it. In the meantime, I've posted some video on YouTube.
Update: I've now posted videos from both nights below.