At the Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Feel so suicidal, even hate my rock and roll
My connection to the Beatles is not one of nostalgia; I am a child of the children who watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show – a Gen Y-er, or whatever term the corporate superstructure has decided to brand us at the moment. And so my connection with the Beatles is on purely musical terms. As a musician, I take those terms very seriously: when someone plays the Beatles, they are playing something sacred, and to tarry into sacrilege is all-too-easy. The question, then, is ultimately whether Rain manages to walk this tight-rope or die by their double-edged sword.
Before the show, the theatre is filled with the sounds that influenced Merseybeat: Buddy Holly, the Shirelles, Carl Perkins, setting the backdrop for the Beatles’ early material (though thankfully avoiding the doldrums of pre-Invasion American music from the 60s, like Billboard No. 1 “Sugar Shack”). As the show starts, they play some 50s commercials on the two side-stage screens, including a commercial where Flintstones characters sell cigarettes; this got a big laugh. I guess I missed how cartoon characters selling cigarettes to children is funny. Anyway, the screen then cuts to an Ed Sullivan impersonator, who introduces the band. The curtain goes up, and Rain takes the stage, dressed just as the Beatles were during their first appearance on the show, and go directly into “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” From there, it’s nonstop Beatles for the next two hours, costume changes included.
The first thing to say is that the musicianship on stage is very good. There’s no Jimi up there, but aside from Paul, the Beatles were never spectacular musicians anyway, so that’s not a problem. And the band does nail the music. There is never a misplayed note or poor timing; they’re tight. But the sound mix is uninspiring: the drums are hot, the vox a bit weak, the guitars occasionally drowned out by the bass. It was all too loud – probably a decision made to assist those audience members starting to experience hearing loss. At a professional-level show, you expect better. This was certainly a step up from your local bar band sound guy, but I’ve seen more well-executed sound at the Riviera, as well as countless other music venues. Rain did have all the right equipment: John’s black Rickenbacker 325, Paul’s Höfner 500/1, George’s Gretsch Country Gentleman – and they all had the now-iconic Vox amplifiers. Graham Alexander could sing quite a lot like Paul, including the belty bits; but Steve Landes could not get John’s throaty howl right for the life of him. It was much too Broadway. And Alexander is not as much a tenor as Paul was: the highest parts were just out of his range. Tom Teeley (“George”) and Doug Cox (“Ringo”) sang very little, although Teeley was an admirable harmonizer.
This is a Broadway piece, so it is supposed to be, in some sense, theatre – so were the four people on stage in character? Alexander certainly was: he has Paul’s ingratiating, insipid demeanor down to a tee; he asked for applause for this or that at least six or seven times and must have cried “Chicago!” about 20. Landes seemed much too peppy to be John, and Teeley jumped around more than I think George ever would have done; but Cox managed to throw in as much character as he could with two fingers, constantly holding up the peace sign, making a caricature of the caricature that is Ringo Starkey. They also have the aforementioned side-stage screens, as well as a backdrop, onto which images are continually projected. To my count, they worked well twice: once, before the second “act,” when “All Along the Watchtower” was played over images of bombs dropping on Vietnam (“‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief”), and again during the song “I Am the Walrus,” during which the trippy psychedelia burbling on the screens augmented the piece; the rest of the time it was either gimmicky or downright distracting, with many of the earlier songs having tacky Yellow Submarine-esque moving backdrops.
One of the largest problems with this show was venue selection: it makes no sense if there’s not a dance floor. This is rock and roll, after all, and it’s got a backbeat – you can’t lose it. Myriad sexagenarians dancing around down front may not be the least ridiculous image one could conjure up, but let’s be honest, they can’t dance any worse than the 20-somethings; they just have extra padding and gray hair. It also alleviates the band from saying, “Okay, everyone stand up for this number!” and the audience obliges, fidgets awkwardly in the two square feet provided, and when the number ends they slowly sit down, wondering if the lights and cameras pointed from on stage toward the dark recesses in the back projected their shame on-screen for everyone to see. A small tip to the stage hands: if the audience isn’t feeling it that night (which can’t be uncommon), skip the crowd-panning camera shots.
In the later part of the first act, Rain are joined by their Billy Preston, Chris Smallwood, who helps them synthesize the sounds on albums like Sgt. Pepper’s and gives them the Hammond B3 sound the blues numbers need. Cleverly, they hid all of Smallwood’s equipment, so whether he had a real B3 (I doubt it) or just a deck of synthesizers is anybody’s guess. Speaking of equipment, they do advance: Teeley picks up the 12-string Rickenbacker 360 before going to his version of Harrison’s Stratocaster “Rocky,” followed by the Rosewood Telecaster he used on the rooftop concert, and then finally to his Les Paul, “Lucy;” Alexander nabs a Rickenbacker 4001S; and Landes brings out Lennon’s trademark Casino, as well as, at the very end, his modified Les Paul Junior. However, and this is only salient because they change the rest of their equipment, never do they switch from the Vox amplifiers that the Beatles started out with (once they were signed – in Hamburg they, like the Animals, used Selmers) to the Fenders the band later preferred. It would not be hard to change amps: live bands do it all the time, some acts, from Elvis Costello to Green Day, using as many as five or more for each guitar. So I question their decision not to, if their goal is to replicate the sound of the Beatles as closely as they can. This is also a connoisseur’s caveat, but everything on stage looked so new – which is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to instruments. I found myself guessing that the Vox amps were probably made in China instead of England, the Epiphone Casino in Malaysia instead of Kalamazoo, and the Junior almost certainly in the Gibson Custom Shop (there were only 300 John Lennon Signature Models made, and, while it is cool that they have one, it has the air of corporatism instead of the individualistic esprit of Lennon’s original). And Teeley’s fuzz pedal sounds awful. It sounded like a digital, Chinese-made rip-off instead of one of the incredible analog American, British, or Japanese fuzz pedals that dominated the market in the 60s and early 70s. This band clearly has money; why not use it? Buy the equipment the music deserves.
As a musician myself, I can’t help thinking these guys have quite the racket going: they’re up there, playing music they love, almost every night. That’s cool. And they all seem to have healthy extra-Rain careers in the industry, so even while their lives revolve around imitating other musicians to pay their bills, maybe they do something original on their own time. They’re clearly making a lot of money with these gigs, and being able to support yourself solely through music is a rare accomplishment – and one I hope to achieve myself one day. I make no bones about that. But simply feeding off the previous generation’s (I refuse to use the term “Baby Boomers,” and find the fact that the Fort Worth Star Telegram called this show “Boomer Heaven” oh-so telling) bloodlust for nostalgia and good old days that never were (Let It Be was released four days after Kent State) seems parasitic. What’s more, behind the music is nothing but kitsch. The costumes don’t enhance the experience, nor, by and large, do the on-screen projections; none of it makes the most important part of the show – the music – any better. If anything, all the ornamentation detracts from what the Beatles were truly about: the songs. Putting cheap wigs and chintzy costumes on (the Sgt. Pepper costumes offended particularly), and playing the tracks note-for-note does not intone the spirit of the Beatles – something you can immediately identify, for instance, in the Libertines’ cover of “8 Days a Week,” never mind that it’s not an exact replica of the original. Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles is unadulterated schlock. And charging up to $75 a ticket, just because that generation has money to blow, is too much. These guys aren’t Muse. For $75, I should see Matthew Bellamy being lowered from the rafters belting “Starlight,” ripping through a solo using his guitar-mounted Kaoss Pad.
If you are a graybeard with an insatiable need for a nostalgia trip, if your head will explode without reminiscing about how good Yip Pips were and your knees get all wobbly every time you think of PVC culottes, then this show may be for you. If you want to hear exciting music that reaps what the Beatles have sown, go see Arctic Monkeys next time they’re in town, or pick up the Vaccines’ debut in March.
Date Reviewed: February 8, 2011
For full show information, check out the Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles page at Theatre In Chicago.
At the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St, Chicago, IL; call (800)775-2000 or visit www.broadwayinchicago.com; tickets $35-$75; Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8, matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2; running time 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission; until February 13th.