I should begin by saying that I’ve seen many Beatles tribute bands over the years, but I’ve never seen or heard one that could compare to Classical Mystery Tour. And by compare, I mean I’ve never heard a group sound so much like the Beatles that I couldn’t discern a difference, and I have never seen a pair of performers who look as much like John Lennon and Paul McCartney as do Jim Owen and Tony Kishman, respectively.
Even their speaking voices sound like John's and Paul's with their Liverpool-inspired scouse accents. And I say this having had the experience of actually attending a live Beatles concert in August of 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. In fact, that concert would turn out to be the Beatles last live concert.
After that final concert at Candlestick Park, the Beatles began producing music that could not effectively be performed on stage by four musicians, but only in a sound studio. The musical arrangements had become highly complex and needed the accompaniment of violins, French horns, trumpets, trombones, flutes, and just about every other instrument in the repertoire of a symphony orchestra. And so, to tour and to be able to perform the music of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Magical Mystery Tour, for example, the Beatles would have needed to travel with a full orchestra, which would have been quite impractical.
Classical Mystery Tour, however, has found a wonderful solution to this problem—they can perform the multifaceted music the Beatles could not perform live, by playing with local symphony orchestras on their tour. On August 3, they played at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco accompanied by the highly acclaimed San Francisco Symphony, which under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, is considered one the country’s most innovative and best orchestras, and has received a host of prestigious awards.
Here I should also mention the spectacular venue in which the San Francisco Symphony performs: Davies Symphony Hall. It was built in 1980 and possesses not only great architectural charm inside and out but has been acoustically tuned by “clouds” of movable convex acrylic reflecting-panels over the stage, which enable the sound characteristics to be adjusted, depending on the size of the orchestra and the type of performance, to enhance the listening experience.
The result of the acoustical tuning is that no matter where one sits, he or she can hear the entire orchestra without being overwhelmed by the instruments to which they are seated nearest.
The performance began with the orchestra playing a hauntingly beautiful medley of Beatles’ songs which was so nostalgic and pure that it actually brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Suddenly, I was eighteen-years-old again and breathlessly awaiting the arrival of the Beatles onto the stage. When the orchestra finished its ten-minute performance, the audience rose as one to give it a long standing ovation. And then, Classical Mystery Tour trotted onto the stage wearing suits reminiscent of those the Beatles wore in 1964 when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show during their wildly successful first tour of America. Again, the audience rose in thunderous applause as the band did the deep bows for which the “Fab Four” was famous.
At this point, I was struck by how much “Paul” looked like Paul, and by how much “John” looked like John. And then they sang “Magical Mystery Tour” with the wonderfully blended accompaniment of the orchestra, which was being conducted by the very vivacious and attractive Sarah Hicks. Sarah was born in Tokyo, raised in Honolulu, and educated at Harvard University where she earned a degree in composition. She is currently the Associate Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony and is Staff conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music.
As the band sang “Magical Mystery Tour”, I closed my eyes and tried my best to determine if I could hear any differences in tone, nuance, or quality between what I was hearing and what I remembered the Beatles sounding like. There were absolutely none. And, hearing the song performed with the help of a world-class, eighty-piece orchestra made the experience unique and very special.
After “Magical Mystery Tour”, the band played “A Hard Day’s Night” followed by “I Saw Her Standing There”, which brought the audience to its feet to sing along and chime in with the appropriate “Oooohs” and screams. Next, “Paul” played an acoustic guitar while soulfully singing his iconic ballad, “Yesterday”. While Paul was singing solo, the other band members were changing into their elaborate and colorful, Sgt. Pepper’s costumes which included mustaches and longer wigs. As they began to sing “All You Need is Love”, “Paul”, having made a quick change, reappeared on the stage.
Next the band played 'Penny Lane', which featured a brilliant trumpet solo by Associate Principal Glenn Fischthal. At the end of the song, Ms. Hicks had Mr. Fischthal rise and receive a richly-deserved ovation from the members of the fully-packed symphony hall. The band and orchestra finished the first half of the performance with several more songs from the Sgt. Pepper’s album, which featured a solo song, “With a Little Help From My Friends”, sung by “Ringo” who was played by Chris Camilleri. Camilleri did not look very much like Ringo Starr, but he sounded like him, only he was more melodic and, I think, a better drummer. Then, after performing “A Day in the Life,” the band and orchestra broke for a short intermission.
After intermission, the band returned dressed as the Beatles on the cover of the Abbey Road album. “John” was dressed entirely in white, with long hair parted in the middle and a pair of round wire-frame glasses, “George” was wearing all denim, “Ringo” a black tuxedo, and “Paul” a dark suit. The costumes reflected the fact that they would be singing songs from their psychedelic phase, which the album Magical Mystery Tour introduced us to in December of 1967. They began with “Hello Goodbye”, followed by “I Am the Walrus”, which featured the orchestra’s excellent violin section, and then, from the White Album, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, which, once again, got much audience participation. During a succession of songs from The White Album and Abbey Road, there was an enchanting solo of “Something” sung by “George” who was played by London-born John Brosnan.
“Paul” then sat at the piano and did a wonderfully faithful rendition of “The Long and Winding Road”, followed by a most dramatic version of “Live and Let Die” which showed off the orchestra’s immense abilities to perfection. “Paul” was followed to the piano by “John” who sang his emotionally evocative anthem to world peace, “Imagine”. After a few more songs, the band left the stage to an ovation that did not cease until they returned for an encore featuring “Hey Jude”, and, lastly, a rousing version of “Twist and Shout”, which had everyone in the symphony hall, including orchestra members and even the conductor doing the twist. As the band disappeared from the stage, the audience members stood and applauded appreciatively for many minutes, hoping for yet another encore.
As I left the concert hall, I felt somehow emotionally drained. It was as though I had just seen the ghosts of the Beatles in their prime and accompanied by world-class musicians. It’s a performance I would like to be able to attend again and again.
Classical Mystery Tour will continue their tour around the country, and their schedule and other information can be found at the following website.
Photos by: Philip Michaels, The San Francisco Symphony, and Classical Mystery Tour.