For the past several days the world has been reliving Beatlemania as the City of Liverpool, birthplace of “the Fab Four” celebrates its recent designation as Europe’s “Capital of Culture for 2008.” Former Beatle Ringo Starr, on the release of his latest CD “Liverpool 8”, proclaimed to tens of thousands of fans while launching the opening ceremony at the Echo Centre on Friday January 11th 2007 that while he left the city, he never let Liverpool down. In the same spirit, twenty four hours later, half way across the world on January 12th, at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, close to three thousand people relived the experience as “1964 ...The Tribute”, the world’s Number 1 Beatle Tribute Band did their part in keeping the music alive. Liverpool’s mythical “Liver Bird” would have spread her wings with pride and appreciation. As a Liverpool ex-pat who witnessed the Beatle phenomena where it began at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, I can say once again that this remarkable show is the ultimate Beatle tribute performance.
For the eighth time “1964 ...The Tribute”, with Gary Grimes as Paul McCartney, Mark Benson as John Lennon, Tom Work as George Harrison and Terry Manfredi as Ringo Starr rocked Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium which was packed to capacity with over twenty-eight hundred happy fans, dancing and screaming in excitement.
Opening the show was brilliantly talented, Emmy nominated guitarist Peter Huttlinger, a veteran guitarist, session player, songwriter and arranger who has performed with John Denver, Lee Ann Rimes, and at the Eric Clapton Crossroads guitar festivals. Combining the style of country genius Merle Travis together with the music of George Gershwin, Huttlinger’s rendition of “I Got Rhythm” set the pace for an utterly amazing show. Taking the stage before a restless crowd eager to hear their favorite Beatle tribute band is no mean task and it is to the credit of the producers of this show that each year, the opening performers have been exceptional. The crowd was suitably enthralled as Huttlinger continued with a funky adaptation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and an eerily chilling version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
After a huge round of applause and a vote of thanks to Radio WPLJ, Liverpool’s own Jean Catherall of Liverpool Beatlescene information service, to coordinator Charlotte Stoll of China Travel Bureau, to Don Imus for interviewing the band the previous day, as well as thanks to the fans who had traveled from all over the world for this show, the lights dimmed and the magical mystery tour began. To the tumultuous cheers and screams of the audience the four musicians came on stage and complete with authentic instruments, amplifiers, suits, boots, Beatle haircuts and authentic “Scouse” Liverpool accents, they won our hearts once more.
Beginning with “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “Please, Please Me” and “From Me To You”, these musicians delivered a performance breathtaking in its authenticity. I looked around marveling at the diversity of the fans and wondered if any of them had been present at either of the Beatles’ two performances there on February 12th 1964. I tried to imagine who sat in the box I now occupied (tickets then were an astounding $5.50 each for the same spot) and wondered if they realized the impact the performance would have on popular music. I call the “1964” show a master class; in a way we’re students watching a masterpiece of technically perfect performance seemingly locked in a time capsule. It’s more than just good old Beatle songs, it’s a brilliant historical reenactment of four eager musicians from a tough English seaport who came, in their words, “just to have a laugh and play our music”, but stayed to change the world; who also brought with them hope at a time when the world needed it. Forty-four years later in a world of war and political unrest, the music of The Beatles still offers us comfort and happiness but this time it’s delivered by four Americans from Ohio who have been playing Beatle music for twenty-four years, fourteen years longer in fact than the original Beatles!
The audience doesn’t just listen to “Thank You Girl”, they relish it as one would appreciate a gift, which may be appropriate as this song was the B Side of “From Me To You” and was actually written by Lennon and McCartney as a gift for their female fans. It was the first Beatle track with double track vocals and one with which “1964 …The Tribute” preserves the integrity of the song even without that recording studio technique. Terry Manfredi’s drumming captures the audience with his even eighth note relaxed style outdoing Ringo himself breaking loose at the song’s conclusion. (Very special to me as I practiced frequently but unsuccessfully on my dad’s drums in 1963.)
More Beatle standards follow, lulling us into security before Mark Benson’s incredible rendition of “This Boy”. With an audience cheering at the intro in anticipation of the extraordinary three part harmony, Benson actually becomes John Lennon, lamenting the terrible sadness of wanting someone you just can’t have. He touches a nerve in us all when he wails, “Oh and this boy, would be happy, just to love you...” and we all scream, some of us cry unashamedly. This is no longer just a performance, it is raw emotion and we are all transfixed.
Lightening the atmosphere, “Act Naturally” gives Terry Manfredi center stage with a country flavor, followed up with perfect Liverpool cheek (or “hard facedness” in Scouse vernacular) as Mark Benson signals us to clap on the middle eight for “A Hard Days Night”, chastises us for not singing loud enough and then leads us into “It’s Only Love”, “Nowhere Man” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”, all the time preparing us for the “big one”, the audience outbreak at “Twist and Shout”. Looking down from the second tier this is truly an unbelievable sight – THE AUDIENCE HAS GONE BARKING MAD. Fans dancing in the aisles, in front of the stage and in the boxes, everyone literally twisting and shouting. In the next box two teenage girls are dancing precariously close to the edge and I, normally cool and at ease am observing the gyrating, dancing myself with notebook in my teeth and arms akimbo, wondering where the past forty-four years actually escaped to as the show went on.
After an intermission the stage was set for “Got To Get You Into My Life”. The horn section of The Robert Miller Orchestra are excellent in giving the song its Northern English Brass Band feel. This song was the first that used horns and saxophones on a Beatle recording and while the session musicians for the 1966 “Revolver” album were outstanding, hearing it performed live was nothing short of thrilling. It is almost impossible to differentiate Gary Grimes from Paul McCartney, the gutsy Stax Memphis and Detroit Motown sound was a perfect backdrop for his talent and the Terry Manfredi’s percussion “outro” was simply remarkable!
“And Your Bird Can Sing” showcased the superb electric lead guitar of Tom Work with crystal clear three part harmony by the band. This song was written to discourage Rolling Stone Mick Jagger from bragging about his girlfriend, singer Marianne Faithfull and its working title was “You Don’t Get Me”.
With baited breath we watched as the string orchestra assembled while Mark Benson expressed to the audience the sheer joy of being able to perform for them as “1964 ...The Tribute”. They are truly unpretentious performers and not mentioned was Benson’s skill as a drummer, or that he plays piano and is considered by his peers an expert on building, repairing and restoring guitars and other stringed instruments and that he has made guitars for many notable rock musicians such as Jackson Browne and Eddie Van Halen, or that his vintage guitars are prized by a list of musicians reading like the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Benson, Grimes and Manfredi played together prior to “1964” in an Ohio band called “Mr. French”. The exceptionally talented Gary Grimes was a recording artist on the Warner Brothers label as a teenager, sang TV jingles and opened for Bad Company, REO Speedwagon and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. His ingenious 1980 album “Starhand Visions”, way ahead of its time, is highly prized in music circles. In order to perfect his Paul McCartney musical persona he relearned the guitar left-handed. The sheer brilliance of Tom Work’s performance as George Harrison sets him apart from all others. He studied music at University of Akron and met Grimes in the seventies while working on individual recording projects, but they didn’t perform together as a tribute band for another ten years. Terry Manfredi played bass guitar in “Mr. French”, doing Beatles, Eagles, Poco and Top 40 songs with Mark and Gary. When the group disbanded he joined together with Tom Work and formed “Carolina”. Manfredi was initially the sound engineer for “1964 ...The Tribute”. He auditioned with them for the role of drummer Ringo Starr and all he had to do was act naturally. The rest is history.
As “In My Life” faded away to thunderous applause, The Robert Miller Orchestra strings prepared to accompany “For No One”. Gary Grimes vocals combined a purity and innocence not found in the original version and unlike the Beatle recording, there was no glitch in the horn solo. But absolute perfection followed with superb orchestration as the cello, viola and violin octet serving as two string quartets as in the original recording performed a brilliant extended introduction to “Eleanor Rigby”. It was pure magic! With the wondrous acoustics of the Isaac Stern Auditorium together the genius of Robert Miller and the flawless background vocals of the Benson, Work and Manfredi, Gary Grimes simply excelled himself.
“Paper Back Writer”, “Rain” and the best sing-along in the world “Yellow Submarine”, were followed by “Yesterday”, “Help”, “Day Tripper” and “She Loves You”. The crowd went wild, the applause was deafening and a standing ovation left little doubt that this band remains the undisputed “Number 1 Beatle Show in the World!”
After the show I had an opportunity to chat with some of their fans, reinforcing once again that music crosses all barriers as the diversity of their fans never ceases to impress me. It really seems like everyone loves Beatle music and all sorts of people come to New York for this concert. Not just celebrities or the New York artsy scene, but also fans like Beth Cella, owner of Resource Investigations who has seen “1964 ...The Tribute” some thirty times but for whom Carnegie Hall was a first or Sculptor D. H. Banker of Annapolis, Maryland, another first timer who was not only impressed with the show but the powerful response of the audience. “It was utterly explosive – what an experience! I didn’t get to see the Beatles and this was better than I have ever imagined.”
Perhaps most notable is that this band of troubadours so obviously love their work, appreciate their audience and are simply happy to keep the music alive. All due respect to them, their professionalism pays truly pays off - they are great at what they do and it shows…their performance is flawless. Clearly these performers enjoy being part of a magical world of music and memory and their happiness is highly contagious. “1964 ...The Tribute” at Carnegie Hall is an unforgettable show, for the family, for lovers and for friends and I, like thousands of others, am counting the days until January 10th 2009.
Marilyn “Mandy” Johnson