This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” which went all the way to the number one on the charts in both the USA and the U.K., and contained such now classic tracks as “Something,” “Come Together,” “Oh! Darling” and “Here Comes the Sun.”
Although it was the penultimate album released while the band was still together, in a simple twist of fate, it was actually the last project the group worked on, as their final LP, “Get Back,” was actually compiled from recording sessions which took place before work on what became known as “Abbey Road” began. The album divided listeners upon initial release, with some adoring the more dramatic and experimental aspects of the group’s continued musical evolution which were on display, and others bemoaning the memorable medley of short, incomplete song ideas which makes up the brunt of the record’s second side.
In the decades since, the album has been reappraised by both fans and critics alike, and despite its somewhat perplexing mishmash of genres, moods and recording techniques, the 17-song, 47-minute LP is now considered an influential gem of blues and showtune-influenced rock ’n' roll.
However, by the time “Abbey Road” hit record store shelves and radio playlists, the Beatles had long since stopped performing live. Tired of the grind of international touring, frightened by what they rightly perceived to be dangerous lapses in the security protocol they depended upon to protect themselves and their loved ones from overzealous admirers and jealous detractors, and frustrated by their inability to replicate onstage the complex, multi-tracked soundscapes of their later LPs, they swore off live concerts and reimagined themselves as a studio band who’s ultimate artistic statements were their highly polished albums.
As a result, none of the tracks on “Abbey Road” were ever performed onstage by the Beatles, which begs the question: what might it have sounded like if they had been able somehow to perform those songs in concert?
The long-running Athens-based Beatles tribute act Abbey Road LIVE! does not attempt to answer that intriguing question through their critically-praised club and theater shows. Instead, the quartet of singing guitarist Chris Bennett, singing bassist Dave Domizi, singing drummer Andrew Hanmer and singing guitarist and keyboardist Michael Wegner offer their own reverent-yet-personalized renditions of every tune on that fabled LP, plus dozens more Beatles tracks from all periods of the legendary group’s existence.
Out of the 200 or so songs the Beatles wrote and recorded during their career, Abbey Road LIVE! has learned and played around 150 of them in concert at one point or another in the 17 years since they began their heartfelt, part-time job celebrating the music of the Fab Four.
“I guess we’ve avoided ‘Revolution #9,’ since that would just be ridiculous to try and replicate, explained Wegner. “But,” he continued, “we’ve been able to do a lot of the most complicated stuff from the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ era, with the help of strings and horns. We even got a sitar so we could do George Harrison’s sitar-based songs!”
The first time Wegner and company performed the “Abbey Road” LP, it was for a special show by Fuzzy Sprouts, the popular Athens club and party act which disbanded in 2001. By that time, said Wegner, their fans loved the novelty of the idea, which led to the group learning even more Beatles tunes to add to their repertoire. So, when Fuzzy Sprouts called it a day, the members “already had a working model for our brand of Beatles tribute, and a loyal fanbase – which made the decision to keep doing Beatles shows easy.”
So, in a world filled with all manner of touring encomiums to the lads from Liverpool, what exactly is their brand of Beatles tribute?
“I think we had a sense that most Beatles tributes focused on the early hits, dressed in suits and wigs, and used fake British accents,” explained Wegner. “We had never really heard of a band highlighting the group’s later years, playing the more obscure songs, and performing complete albums from start to finish. So, that seemed like a pretty good niche.”
This somewhat novel approach also allowed the band members to feel more comfortable at letting their own talent and sound shine through the material, rather than slavishly attempting to recreate every note, nuance and flourish that can be heard on the Beatles’ timeless records. Which, it should be noted, are obsessed over mercilessly by millions of diehard fans the world over, making that a rather unenviable task. Not to mention the fact that they could wear their own clothes to the shows.
“I don’t think we would been very convincing doing the Beatles look-alike thing,” Wegner admitted with a chuckle. “And that whole idea doesn’t appeal to us much, anyway. Most of us are coming from a more jam-oriented, creative musical philosophy. Musical theatre is not what we signed up for. We love the Beatles’ music, but we also like the freedom to go out on stage and be ourselves, and not be confined to a certain role. We actually go off book a lot at our shows – adding little teases of other famous songs into our jams, or busting into a Rolling Stones or Bee Gees song on the fly if an audience member eggs us on. It would be hard to pull that stuff off if we were expected to remain in character the whole night.
“We just try to strike a balance between being true to the original recordings while keeping the sound fresh and in-the-moment. I’m sure there are some purists that think what we’re doing is a sacrilege, but for the most part, they seem to love it.
“I think people sometimes assume that tribute band musicians aren’t creative, since they are playing someone else’s music. But you can be in a tribute band and be creative – those things aren’t mutually exclusive. We all play original music too. Abbey Road LIVE! is just one part of what we do musically.”
Wegner said his band draws crowds with an unusually wide range of ages, which is not that surprising when you think about it, because the Beatles’ back catalog is fairly timeless.
“We actually get a lot of kids at our shows,” he offered. “Many tell us we are their first rock concert ever – which is a great honor… I mean, my own first concert ever was ‘Beatlemania.’ I was 11 years old and thought they were totally amazing… And the kids often know lots of Beatles songs already. But even when they don’t, they seem to enjoy it.”
Since the group has now been around long enough to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album that gave them their name, this upcoming Tybee Post Theater gig will run approximately two hours, during which the band playing that entire record from start to finish, followed by a second set of various Beatles tunes. Wegner encouraged audience members to make specific song requests in advance via Abbey Road LIVE!’s Facebook page.
For now, he and his compatriots are looking forward to returning to our area, where they have played a handful of times over the years. Wegner said it’s always a special treat for them to pass through our neck of the woods.
“We once did an outdoor show at SCAD, and that was lots of fun,” he recalled. “Of course, playing on Tybee, we get to go the beach, so that’s pretty great. We always like visiting Savannah, with all the parks and cool architecture. We don’t have Spanish moss in Athens!”