Hardest part of Beatles tribute show was paring down setlist

IN CONCERT

What: Spring Beatles
Where: bluebridgetheatre.ca
When: April 27-May 2
Tickets: $25

A concert paying tribute to The Beatles has to include 100 songs if it’s going to properly reflect the breadth of the Fab Four’s talents.

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So how does a group of five local musicians — each with his own strong opinions on the matter — settle on a scant 23 songs for a run of eight upcoming concerts saluting John, Paul, George and Ringo? By treading lightly, it would appear.

“We’re dealing with a band of seasoned professionals who are also friends,” said singer-pianist Brooke Maxwell. “None of us are younger than 49, so we’re crusty old bastards. But there’s not really a band leader, and we don’t really want to have a dictatorial leader. So we made it democratic.”

Maxwell is joined in the group by Chris Frye, who will sing and handle electric and acoustic guitars for the run of livestream performances staged by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. They are joined by drummer Damian Graham, bassist Peter Dowse and violist Richard Moody, who will also sing. The friends play together in several incarnations around town, and are often associated with the musical hubs at Pagliacci’s restaurant and Hermann’s Jazz Club.

The cumulative experience of the members is part of the appeal of the upcoming performances under the Spring Beatles banner: Moody and Frye are members of two-time Juno Award nominees The Bills; Maxwell co-wrote the Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning play Ride the Cyclone; and Graham and Dowse are long-established veterans of several local outfits.

Though everyone in the group is juggling several projects, the chance to jam on some Beatles songs was too good for anyone to pass up. Any time you have an opportunity to perform songs from the richest catalogue in the history of popular music, you immediately jump on board, Maxwell said.

“The catalog is so impressive,” he said. “The arc and the speed with which they went through their growth is just really unfathomable.

“When you hear outtakes of them, they would sing totally out of tune and whack away on the guitar; they weren’t slick as musicians in every circumstance. They were just guys who worked their asses off and had this crazy drive to get better all the time.”

For the upcoming performances — their first as a unit — the group is calling itself Wild Honey Pie, after The Beatles song of the same name. Choosing a moniker was the easy part, Maxwell said. The difficulty came in determining which songs would be performed.

From a catalogue of 229 songs by The Beatles, the group whittled its choices down to 40. Individual options were ranked out of five, which (thanks to a Venn diagram, Maxwell said) produced an essential 30 songs. That was eventually pared down to 23, after much haranguing.

While the final setlist paid some attention to “The Beatles police,” as Maxwell jokingly called diehard fans of the band, some songs that made the cut will not be well-known to the wider public.

That keeps things interesting for the players and audience, Frye said. “We’re trying to touch upon a lot of the different phases that The Beatles entered into within this show. There’s an emotional ride, and the energy changes dramatically. Everybody in the band is featured in different ways at different times, which is very Beatle-esque. We’ve got three lead singers, and different people soloing.”

Improvisation also enters into the equation. Most of the members of Wild Honey Pie have jazz and bluegrass backgrounds, where soloing is encouraged. In terms of replicating the string sections prominent in much of The Beatles’ work, Frye was happy to report that they passed that buck onto Moody, who will shoulder much of the load.

“You’re going to get to hear Richard exploring stuff on his viola that was never part of a Beatles song. That is going to be one of the things that changes from night to night.”

Spring Beatles runs April 27-May 2. The band will perform live from the stage at the Roxy Theatre, during both night and afternoon performances. There will be slight changes to each performance, musically and visually.

The latter area is where the imprint of Blue Bridge staffers Brian Richmond, Jacob Richmond and Rebekah Johnson, who all played a role in crafting the production, will be most evident, Frye said.

Alex Wlasenko will contribute period visuals. “The Blue Bridge folks had some great thoughts about how to highlight what is going on. It’s a really exciting collaboration. There is nothing theatrical, in terms of anybody reciting lines, but there is some really nice lighting and projections, a vibe being set up around it. It’s going to be a nice mix between a living-room type performance with a very nice show added on top.”

Spring Beatles was originally scheduled for March 2020, but was postponed due to the fallout from COVID-19. That wound up being something of a blessing, as it gave all involved an abundance of preparation time.

Maxwell said the group has rehearsed the show 20 times thus far, which is about 18 more than for most of the musical groups he has participated in during his career.

“The music itself is magical. But using it as a vehicle to connect the five of us, that’s what I really love.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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