- 21 Oct 19
A celebration of Abbey Road and Let It Be with the world's greatest Beatles tribute act and the orchestra from his alma mater? Hot Press' leading fab pub bore Pat Carty was beside himself.
It’s a good time, as it always is, to be a Beatles fan - and let’s be honest, everybody is one, really, those sad individuals who claim they aren’t are only fooling themselves. The recent reissue of Abbey Road – a number one album all over again, fifty years later – is a thing of beauty, featuring as it does a very fine remix of the original album by Giles Martin and a set of outtakes worthy of Ulysses level study and examination. Next year should see a similar exhumation of the Let It Be project. Ok, it’s not The Beatles finest hour, but it’s The Beatles for Jaysus’ sake, which makes it better than most people’s best, and the prospect of Peter Jackson’s forthcoming movie compiled from the miles of footage shot at the time is something worth staying alive for. Not that an excuse is ever needed to revel in the music they gave us over their seven years – think about that, the likes of Coldplay take seven years to get their drums sounding “right” – of recording, music that humans will celebrate until the sun eats the world, but joy is etched into every smiling face here tonight, and none more so than mine.
There is something ridiculously exciting about seeing the iconic bass drum head on the stage as you take your seat in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the one that says ‘Beatles’ in that unmistakable font. Yes, it says ‘Bootleg’ above it, but if you’ve been lucky enough to see them before, you already know that The Bootleg Beatles - on the go since 1980 although, much like Trigger’s broom, the head and the handle have been replaced a few times - are as close as you’re going to get to an audience with the Gods, and that’s possibly including going to see McCartney live because he doesn’t quite stick to the script the same way these apostles do. The added bonus is the UCD Symphony Orchestra conducted by the expert hand of Professor Ciarán Crilly, the artistic director of the Orchestra since its foundation. Having been fortunate enough to see them expand Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into a breath-taking 50th anniversary celebration last year, that record brought to live in technicolour 3-D, I expected something special tonight, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.
Is there a more charming bastard in Ireland than Marty Whelan? I doubt it, and he proves it again with his enthusiastic yet relaxed introductions and links, taking us back to when he was a lad, subsisting on a diet of Val Doonican and The Monkees, only to have his head turned by Abbey Road. He asks if anyone here saw them when they played The Adelphi in 1963? One brave soul roars an affirmation. They apparently had to commandeer an Evening Herald van to get back to The Gresham afterwards. “Sure they could have walked that,” quips Whelan with his enviable bonhomie. There’s a video intro with the moon landings, then that zebra crossing, then The Bootlegs are with us, straight into the swampy Chuck Berry “borrowing” boogie of ‘Come Together’. Before we go any further, a note of their appearance. I once went to see Ireland’s greatest Elvis impersonator, Mr. Kevin Doyle, do a show where he performed the first half – brilliantly – in his civilian clothes. When he came out for part two in the full Vegas rig out, it just sounded better. Is there any scientific basis for this? Of course not, that’s just, if you’ll excuse the pun, the way it is. So it is tonight. These four men, who might for all we know resemble the bloke asleep across from you on the train during the day, have got the Beatles circa 1969 look down pat, right down to Paul’s bare feet (HE’S DEAD!) and Ringo’s droopy ‘tache/comedy snozz combo. The music is equally perfect, the result, I’m sure, of endless study and rehearsal. The bass playing of “Paul” in particular is jaw dropping. I’ll fight anyone who argues against McCartney as the most gifted of The Beatles and probably the greatest bass player in the history of rock n’ roll. His playing on the original album was a showcase of his innate melodicism and individuality and tonight’s “Paul” knows it inside out. And that’s not to take away from the other three either, “George” adding some particularly effective volume knob work during this opening, a precursor to his tasteful – and spot on -playing throughout the evening. “Lennon’ is equally great and “Ringo” might just be better than Ringo.
With the greatest respect to Mr Crilly – that sounds like a Beatles name, perhaps one of the shopkeepers on ‘Penny Lane’? – and his orchestra, they had more to work with on Pepper. The ornateness of that album allowing extra arrangement scope whereas Abbey Road, and Let It Be in particular, are more “band” albums. Accordingly, the orchestra’s contributions are more subtle than the previous show – there are brass stabs in this opening song, the strings fill up behind the second verse, and, not for the last time tonight, the arrangements add a cinematic vista to this material that we all know so well. ‘Something’ is beautiful, of course, lifted by “George’s” Les Paul, “Ringo’s” excellent drum fills, and a bit of what sounds like xylophone down the back. The show successfully navigates through the first of Abbey Road’s potholes by adding charm to McCartney’s homicidal ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ – there’s a tea towel on the floor tom, essential fifth bootleg Max Langley on anvil clanging, and the oom-pah efforts from the orchestra sit well with the 30’s cartoon backdrop. That dynamite slice of R&B ‘Oh! Darling’ features ‘Paul’ howling his head off with the strings giving it a bit of pizzicato behind “George’s” guitar as he goes up the neck for the “when you told me” section.
The band make light of ‘Octopus’s Garden’ as well they should – “Get your snorkel on, Ringo”, “he’s already wearing one” – but they do manage to weave a bit of silk out of this porcine lug of a tune, thanks to the orchestra’s pleasingly pastoral lilt. It is, however, the closing song on side one of the record where the UCDSO really start to shine. Depending on your listening mood, Lennon’s bluesy bit of Yoko yearning, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ can be a bit of a dirge, but here it’s transformed. The descending strings behind the guitar solo and “Ringo’s” handy ride cymbal add a John Barry/Bond Theme air to the affair, there’s an exciting touch of cacophony as the orchestra does battle with the busy bass and the organ stabs before each tempo change that takes the song from its repeated guitar arpeggio into the latin-ish groove, and a mesmerising bit of crescendo before that famous sudden stop - it’s all a very welcome surprise and a musical triumph.
Flipping the record over to side two – and if all The Beatles ever did was side two of Abbey Road, we’d still be talking about them – ‘Here Comes The Sun’ has the orchestra, if anything, improving on the moog sounds that coloured the original, and the three-part harmony of ‘Because’ delivered around one microphone is a as technically admirable as it is artistically, the string arrangement sounding a bit like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in a major key. I honestly think, right at this moment anyway, that the medley that closes out the record is the greatest thing The Beatles ever did, but in case you just think this is the glassy-eyed ramblings of an old man, my teenaged daughters who share my opinion are sat either side of me, impossibly excited, singing along to every word. ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ is played straight by the band, the orchestra coming back up for ‘Sun King’, and the fuzz bass of ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ quickly gives way to ‘Polythene Pam’ – a slight misstep to these ears, the strings don’t suit and “Lennon’s” 12-string needed to be louder – which ends with the best segue in rock history, Lennon shouts “lookout” over the 5 note step down into ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’.
At some point during ‘Golden Slumbers’/’Carry That Weight’ daughter #2, seated to my right, grasps my hand and goes a bit teary, which proves contagious and sets me off, as the strings entwine with “McCartney’s” voice. By the time the brass section sings out the reprise of the ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ melody, we’re both choking up, overcome by the beauty of this timeless music that laughs in the face of any notion of generational difference. We could, and often do, argue about the colour blue, but we agree on this, smiling with joy as the end comes to ‘The End’. The love you take is equal to the love you make. This is art at its most beguiling, its most affecting, its most magical. Again, if this was all they ever did…
The band leave the stage to a huge roar but a cartoon version of Queen Elizabeth calls “McCartney” back for a quick ‘Her Majesty’. Serious Beatle people will know that this was tacked onto the end of the record by mistake and there’s something to be said here about Eno’s notion of honouring your mistake as your hidden intention and the infallibility of genius, blah, blah, blah, but frankly I’m still emotionally adrift in the end of the medley, so let’s leave it.
After a break for refreshments, we get a near perfect – hopeless pedants might argue about the slightly altered running order - re-enactment of the famous rooftop concert which took place on the 30th of January, 1969 above Apple Corps, 3 Saville Row. “Paul” has got his shoes back on, “John” and “Ringo” have both borrowed their lady friend’s coats, and “Harrison” sports his fetching green kacks. The orchestra naturally sit this section out and let this band – and they are a great band - rock. “John’s” voice is perfect on ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ and a brilliant ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, ‘One After 909’ takes a train all the way back to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, and we’re all up throwing shapes for ‘Get Back’ which is cruelly interrupted by police constables Whelan and Crilly responding to noise complaints, bringing the section to a close to the sound of boos from an audience that are completely caught up in the whole palaver.
Whelan returns in his civilian clothes to introduce the final section of the evening, reminiscing about seeing the original ‘Let It Be’ movies in the Corinthian cinema, which used to be down on Eden Quay, known as ‘The Ranch’ because you could nearly always find a western playing. The stage now resembles Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970’s documentary. “McCartney” – now suitably bearded – sits at the piano as they go into ‘The Long And Winding Road’. Beatle nutbags like myself were curious to hear whether the orchestra would go for the controversial arrangements that Phil Spector added to the original tracks or step back for McCartney’s preferred stripped down versions released on Let It Be… Naked in 2003. They go with the former but leave most of the saccharinity out. After a gag about Eric Clapton, “George’s” slight ‘I Me Mine’ is improved by the string arrangement that underpins the verses, but it is Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ that is one of tonight’s real winners. It’s played on an acoustic guitar as the strings rise and fall behind it, the orchestra covering the ah-ah-ahs of the original and finishing with the cellos plucking out the ascending notes around the final ‘Jai Guru Deva’.
There’s a continuation of a running gag about Yoko Ono and peace signs (“Don’t sing!”) before a great ‘Dig A Pony’, the strings particularly strong behind the “all I want is you line”, and then “one more from The Beatles hymn book before we split up, ‘Let It Be’. The ‘Abide With Me’ strings, “Ringo’s” hi-hat, the brass joining with the guitar and the guitar solo itself all make for a suitably rousing finale, but wait, there’s more. ‘Hey Jude’ – renamed ‘Hey Dude’ in “honour” of Ed Sheeran’s “gag” from the recent Yesterday movie, but I’m not going to dignify that with a mention – is incredibly moving, everyone up out of their seats roaring out that “Na, Na, Na” refrain. My other daughter, situated on my left-hand side, who has been a Beatlemaniac since before she could talk, has a grin on her that would shame a shark and is belting it out with the best of them. Alas, she has inherited her mother’s voice, so it looks like I’ll have to work until retirement, but no matter! We get another quick blast of ‘The End’ to finish and both band and orchestra take their bows amidst a very much justified clamour of acclaim.
I had planned to insert an hilarious reference to the band passing the audition here, but Whelan, the bounder, beat me to it. Let me put it this way, short of finally solving the conundrum of bending space-time to our collective wills, this is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing this music performed as intended by its authors, and let’s not forget that aside from that rooftop concert, they never played it live anyway, so this celebration and reminder of how powerful music can be might be even better. I’ll go for it anyway, let me paraphrase Lennon and direct this message to The Bootleg Beatles, Professor Crilly, and The UCD Symphony Orchestra: I would like to say thank you on behalf of the audience and myself, you more than passed.