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A top-rank party for 'Sgt. Pepper'

Cheap Trick and a crack cast of dozens celebrate the Beatles and their watershed 1967 album.

August 13, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

The Beatles have stood for so many things -- the creative flowering of the baby boom, the apex of classic rock, the voice of an international youth movement, the proof that pop music can be art, yadda yadda yadda -- that it can be hard to remember that John, Paul, George and Ringo were also a rock band.

Like a chamber group or an early-music ensemble, a rock band has a particular structure and way of interacting. Whatever specific shape it takes, it still centers on a small core of players trying to find their own voices within tight parameters: music that's beat-oriented, guitar-driven, song-based, amped up.

The programmers at the Hollywood Bowl did right by the Beatles, putting Cheap Trick behind the wheel of "Sgt. Pepper's at 40," a celebration for the Fab Four's definitive album. Having the album's engineer, Geoff Emerick, behind the soundboard may have been the most authentic stroke of the night, but band interplay kept it real.

Friday's program, which began with selections from other Beatles albums and then featured a track-by-track rendition of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," also starred the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater as well as an Indian music ensemble and snazzy guest vocalists.

Aimee Mann offered a great blasé reading of "Fixing a Hole"; Joan Osborne transformed "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" into psychedelic soul. Ian Ball of the band Gomez, a Liverpudlian himself, won the crowd's affection with a jaunty "When I'm Sixty-Four."

Guitarist and songwriter Rob Laufer, who once played George Harrison in "Beatlemania!," pulled off a pitch-perfect "Within You Without You." And preceding the "Sgt. Pepper" portion, in a raw turn that primal-scream therapy advocate John Lennon would have enjoyed, industrial music patriarch Al Jourgensen and guitarist Sin Quinn led a metal-punk meltdown on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."

For all this star power, building the event around Cheap Trick, four players who've shared 30 years of recording, touring, fighting, making up and getting down, gave the night its sense of purpose -- and fun.

It's not just that vocalist Robin Zander is the most convincing power-pop Anglophile singer ever produced -- and still hits every high note. It's not Rick Nielsen's ingenious guitar playing or the punchy rhythm section of Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos. The ruffian sound of four egos crashing and melding is what resurrected the Beatles as living musicians, not just icons.

Founded in Rockford, Ill., in the mid-1970s, Cheap Trick gained fame by twisting the Beatlesque into something shinier, harder, more American. The quartet didn't exactly replicate their progenitors, but it utterly seized upon that Beatles feel. People noticed. Beatles producer George Martin helmed one of their albums, and Nielsen and Carlos even played on "Double Fantasy," the album John Lennon and Yoko Ono released just before his death.

Friday, strutting through songs starting with "Magical Mystery Tour" and including the 16-minute medley from "Abbey Road," Cheap Trick conjured the Beatles sound without getting buried by it. Zander's delicate vocal on "She's Leaving Home" and Carlos' drumming on a Stonesy version of "Lovely Rita" (with Mann on lead vocal) responded to the originals instead of aping them. As the concept of rock as repertoire evolves, it can be beneficial for those paying homage to match reinterpretation with an equal amount of reconstruction. Cheap Trick was the right group for that.

The second half of the program, which focused on "Sgt. Pepper," far outshone the first. This wasn't because the material is necessarily better. Early on, when the orchestra played a rich arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby," or when Ball unlocked Lennon's wordplay in "Strawberry Fields Forever," the excellence of those songs reasserted themselves. Simply hearing different voices relaying such familiar material refreshed it.

But only when the whole group took on "Sgt. Pepper," with Cheap Trick laying the foundation, did the evening totally jell. In the first half, with singers coming and going and the affable conductor Outwater chatting between most numbers, it felt like a variety show. With everyone engaged in the same work, star turns were replaced by the energy of full interaction.

Beatles tributes can go in any direction. Jazz and soul artists have created some of the best; Al Green's rendition of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and George Benson's album "The Other Side of Abbey Road" come to mind. Beatles songs are pop songs, and thus they're up for grabs. But it's also engaging to take on their albums as classics: the contemporary equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Cheap Trick and its collaborators approached "Sgt. Pepper" with that level of commitment. Yet they never abandoned their irreverence. Their performance was a fine reminder that rock's rough edges are worth preserving too.

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