Summers in New Orleans usually bring lots of heat and few festivals but, lately, the weather has been cooler than most of the nation and we got to celebrate the 9th New Orleans Beatles Festival. Founded by guitarist Chuck Credo IV (grandson of Chuck Credo Jr. of The Basin Street Six), the festival moved from Mid-City Lanes Rock N Bowl to the House Of Blues in 2007. Nearby, in the Arena, home of the Hornets, NOLA native Britney Spears was staging yet another comeback tour. There’s always something for everyone in this city and you can root for things without hating others so I was glad when the MC quit bashing lip syncing pop stars and just let the evening flow.
I saw the tribute band, Beatlemania, on a blind date when I was 14. The band may have been talented but focused all their attention on recreating the Beatles as they were, from costumes and wigs to gestures and song phrasing. It was supposed to recreate the experience of seeing the Beatles live but ended up feeling more like a wax museum version of life or like a bug frozen in amber. By contrast, this year’s Beatles Festival had 2 distinct parts beginning with local musicians doing their own take on the music of the Beatles. The results were sometimes chaotic, sometimes magical.
First up was Jimmy Robinson, an inventive guitarist who sometimes beats his instrument like a junkyard drum. Though he was still bandaged from a recent trip to the emergency room after cutting a finger, his guitar was putty in his skilled hands.
Morning Life, a true rock band, did an inspired version of I feel Fine as a rock party anthem a la Twisted Sister or Kiss, and another song (forget which) as a honky tonk tune. But it was their Blackbird that brought tears to my eyes. Surrounded by people too busy having fun to judge each other, my belly full of Shrimp Remoulade Stuffed Avocado from the patio of Napoleon House swaying to music in my favorite city in the world, these lyrics cut to the quick of me, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.” I could’ve done without them winging free CD’s into the crowd like pointy plastic missiles on Mardi Gras, but they were rowdy fun.
Next onstage was BeatinPath, recent winners of a Threadhead Records contest. Threadhead Records, run by volunteers and funded by fans, helps musicians who were victims of Katrina by loaning artists money to produce a CD. In turn, the artist agrees to pay back the loan within 6 months (and the money is returned to the investor-fans) along with a 10% donation to the Threadhead Records Foundation or other recognized charities benefitting local musicians. Katrina was a mixed blessing for BeatinPath, sending them on the road for their first national tour by RV. Their alternative-country Threadhead CD (the band’s 4th CD) is Ghosts and has songs about rebuilding a home after Katrina as well as their love for the RV they toured in.
They opened with a pretty version of Two of Us, then a slow, but punky Ramones-like version of the classic, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Particularly fun was John Hurley’s kumbaya moment of doing an audience singalong of Yesterday – complete with hands waving in the air like corn in the wind.
Founder, Chuck Credo, joined the group for Band on the Run and it hit me that some of these musicians were actually better than the Beatles, but I was still waiting for someone with a melodic voice to carry the John Lennon and, especially, Paul McCartney songs.
Then John Gros of Papa Grows Funk came out and took over the keyboard. Despite not being able to see him behind one of the many monitors flashing images and film clips of the Beatles, his playing on Maybe I’m Amazed was a high point for me. And I enjoyed Mike Mayeux’s trick of using the guitar to substitute for the high singing notes. For Strawberry Fields Forever, more guys joined the stage and Mayeaux used a bullhorn to distort his voice. The band also played Oh Darlin’ with great conviction. After another short break, the Molly Ringwalds, an 80’s tribute band, took the stage for, among others, a high energy version of Jet and a beautiful rendition of John Lennon’s Woman.
And that was the first 3 hours. During breaks, as the bands played the role of their own roadies, music videos played on the numerous screens. Though some grumbled and played cool over the Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney duet of Say Say Say, everyone joined in for the ooooooh’s and many couldn’t help dancing.
The New Orleans Beatles Festival has always had 2 running themes, the music of the Beatles and the stylings of The Topcats. The Topcats do what Beatlemania attempted, gave me the sensation of seeing the Beatles live but as they might play today, as older, seasoned men. Playing together for 28 years has given them a sense of cohesion and confidence only found after decades in front of crowds. Many of the musicians from earlier left the drinking in the green room to join us dancing in the crowd.
They opened with a blackened stage and the screens all showing the sonic boom arrival of the Beatles in America in 1964 then Ed Sullivan introducing them strumming that first unforgettable note of Hard Days Night. They moved into favorites like Eight Days a Week. Finally, we had melodic voices. Then Alan Mixon, who reminded me of David Carradine as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory, sang Nowhere Man as friends came from behind him with a surprise giant guitar-shaped birthday cake.
As the revolving of musicians continued, singer Jim Lockwood joined the band to take on the super sweet There. BeatinPath’s Skeet Hanks came back for Drive My Car and most of the other high energy songs.
Someone named Dave took the keys to create the orchestral strings of Eleanor Rigby then the band (and video screens) took us into the world of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and With a Little Help from My Friends, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Back in the U.S.S.R. The evening reached a fever pitch as Skeet reprised Helter Skelter, throwing himself onto his knees. Then things quieted again with the soulful beauty of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
I was thrilled to see John Gros return, center stage this time. His Randy Newman-like take on Maxwell’s Hammer was another highlight for me as was his funky intro then Cajun reggae version of Yellow Submarine.
Next up was Thaddeus Richard (ree-shard), horn player for Paul McCartney’s Wings. He’s played himself on 9 episodes of HBO’s Treme and for us, played clarinet, flute and sax. I’ll admit it gave me a thrill to hear his dulcet tones on Listen to What the Man Said and I’ve always loved Silly Love Songs.
The evening ended (5 hours after if started), with all the musicians and some of their friends returning to the stage with Jim Lockwood front and center to lead us all in the many la la la’s of Hey Jude. Chuck Credo finished the night with a rousing round of Who Dats and we all went home humming our favorite songs.
I understand that the concert takes a different shape every year but I really enjoyed the way the evening played out, a bunch of local bands offering interpretations of Beatles songs followed by a version of the band they might have been. That said, bring on the women. I would love to hear Susan Cowsill bring her gravitas to a song or two and hope they consider the perfect synergy of having Cajun angel, Sarah Quintana, sing Michelle in French.
All in all, from the Abbey Road inspired poster of the Beatles crossing a streetcar on Canal to the hug-fest that was hundreds of people from several generations singing Hey Jude together, it was a blast from the past that allowed us to share our own individual trips down memory lane.