The Beatles at Sea

I don’t think I am likely to run out of things to write about The Beatles.  Scratch that.  There is no chance I will ever run out of things to write about The Beatles.

How about The Beatles on Norwegian Cruise Line making our away around the calm summer waters of the Hawaiian Islands?  That’s about as magical a place for The Beatles as I can imagine, beyond the Sea of Holes and across the Sea of Time.  Toss in a set list that spans the entirety of Beatlemania performed by one of the most gracious husband and wife musician couples I have ever met — now you’re talking magic, an experience so utterly perfect it’s hard to believe it’s even real.

TobyBeauBeatlesToby Beau is the joyous source of this sound celebration, a rock band with Texas roots dating back three decades, now performing on the main stage and in cabaret surroundings of the Pride of America.  It’s not the usual kind of place you would find me, nor where you might expect to be sharing in the sing along chorus of Hey Jude.  I think that was a big part of what made it all so wonderful, it wasn’t the expected in any sense of manner or place, and yet it all just clicked the way brilliant music and expert performance always succeed — pleasing the mind, pleasing the senses, creating realtime context that is both Yesterday and Today.

Last week my wife and I spent a week island hopping in my home state of Hawaii with about 2000 fellow NCL passengers.  No, it was not a normal thing for us to do, but playing tourist can be fun if you do it right with plenty of time for snorkeling, hiking, biking, and kayaking.  We didn’t spend much time at the buffet, but we did catch all of the live music.  Vacations can be an amazing time of discovery, where you can relax and float downstream, and whenever we hear there are Beatles tunes in the house, well, we just go check it out.  About midway through our week we ventured to the main showroom and met ax man vocalist Balde Silva, who performs every single week of the year beside his sometimes lead, sometimes harmonizing wife Rennetta Dennett Silva, the two of them still the core of Toby Beau.  Their biggest hit, My Angel Baby, came in 1978, around the time they were touring with such high power acts as the Doobie Brothers, Bob Seger, and Steve Miller.  Balde and Rennetta are music industry survivors who have reinvented themselves any number of times over the years, not only proudly still playing live music, but playing it together, having a blast, and obviously forever in love.

That brings us full circle, back to The Beatles, at sea, and the kind of love that lives forever in a set of songs that work no matter where they are played, that prove themselves over and over again precisely because they take on new meaning when bounced off new walls.  Music veterans like Toby Beau evidence what it means to play flawlessly, inserting subtleties that are different each night, reflective of the experience that unexpected places can offer, reverberating off audience participation, taking in the physical moment and replacing it with a memory.  It takes a truly inventive catalogue to pull that off endlessly without becoming rote.  Musical excellence is one part material, one part craft, one part passion, and one part ethereal.  A cruise ship is just a venue, a stage is just a platform, but layer in the mystical concoction of the lads from Liverpool with a pair of performers determined to inject love into the tunes, and the formula becomes fully extemporaneous in the emotions that swell.

Balde and Rennetta take it a step further, offering the story of The Beatles through bits of spoken history, stitching together the songs as a real life fairy tale.  This is not impersonation but tribute, commencing with the earliest days of I Want To Hold Your Hand and A Hard Day’s Night, winding the road to Yesterday and Nowhere Man, then reaching with bravado to We Can Work It Out and Back in the USSR.  We get Something by George, then we Get Back, then we Let It Be.  Hands wave in the air for Hey Jude, and then the band covers a Beatles cover with the dance floor encore, Twist and Shout.  It all takes less than an hour, less than a dozen cuts, but once again we have taken the journey anew, heard it differently, felt it reimagined, shared it somewhere we probably won’t return but can carry with us forever as its own idea — an interpretation shaped by its circumstance, constant in its creative rejuvenation.

The Beatles stayed together less than a decade, an incomprehensibly brief interlude that resulted in a body of work that remains inexhaustible in inspiration.  Balde and Rennetta have stayed in the game as long as they have because of their love of the music, their love of the art form, and their love of each other.  The combination of all that love and craft and chemistry just got added to my canon of musicality, new energy flowing through time-tested lyrics, new theater emerging from a bit of the acoustic and a mastery of the electric.  We didn’t go to sea to find it, we found it by chance, spontaneous discovery — and because we shared it, once again it is ours.

Let the music wander where it will, infuse it valiantly with love, the world is at your command.  What we discover in the familiar is the awakening of the imaginative, the surprise of the open-ended revitalized by care and intension.  You can hear it differently if you allow the phrasing to bend here, there, and everywhere — the artists’ touch a composite of admiration and trust.  Thank you again, Balde and Rennetta.  Thank you again John, Paul, George and Ringo.  The music is perfect.  The music is forever.  The music is a gift to be celebrated and loved.

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Let It Be

I write this evening from London on the last day of a short business trip.  I am pounding this out on an iPad so it may be a bit less polished then some of my posts, but I want to share the passion with you somewhat unedited, while it is still fresh and resonating.

While here I enjoyed the tremendous experience of seeing the new Beatles revue, Let It Be, at the Savoy Theatre.  The experience was full of wonder and magic, precisely the way music and theatre can touch your heart when you least expect it.  The Savoy Theatre is an especially magical venue, one of the oldest working stages in London and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity in the late 19th century.

imageYes, it’s another Beatles cover show, like Beatlemania, like Rain, like so many appearances of The Fab Four.  The lads appear in multiple costumes from the Beatles era, but are not allowed to call themselves The Beatles, nor use the names John, Paul, George, or Ringo.  They refer to each other as The Bass Player or The Singer or The Drummer, and of course Billy Shears gets an appropriate shout out since he is a character of fiction.  They start in black suits and thin ties, then put on Nehru jackets, then some colorful hippy fabrics, then the Sgt. Pepper Uniforms, then wilder hippy fabrics, then the John character in the white suit and long hair followed by the John character in the shoulder length hair, military shirt and sunglasses.  You know the drill.

We open with I Saw Her Standing There, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, then we’re off to Shea Stadium, then the Rubber Soul period, then Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, and we round it out with Get Back, the title number, and Jude.  They don’t exactly go in order, more a thematic pastiche.  There are television bits in the background showing black and white commercials of the nice lady in awe dropping the pearl in the Prell shampoo bottle, occasional blasts of Jimi Hendrix over Vietnam bombings, the marches, the flower posters, the peace signs, the weeping teens falling over each other in the stadium crowds — all of the familiar nostalgia that we have seen so often but still celebrate as boomers.  No creative breakthroughs, no big picture inventions, no stagecraft of staggering originality.  It was a concert of Beatles songs, two and a half hours with a break, four guys who didn’t look like The Beatles absent the various wigs, and the Paul character even played a right-handed (gasp!) Hofner bass.

So why was this show so different, so memorable, so moving, so unforgettable, so touching?

Two reasons.

For one, at half a century I might have been the youngest person in the audience.

The other, the audience was almost entirely British.

You might expect at a West End Beatles revue in London-town the show goers at a Saturday matinee might be mostly tourists.  They were not.  They were locals.  They came to relive their youth, if only for an afternoon, and they loved every second of it.  They were on their feet, they were twisting and shouting, they were dancing in the aisles, they clapped and sang along word for word, they echoed the chant: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

No one in that room felt they were 60, or 70, or 80.  You could not tell anyone in that room that this was a 50th celebration of anything.  This was real, this was vital, this was now.

And this was British.  Very, very British.  Lovely, as they say.  Brilliant.

Yes, the image of John in Central Park is literally chiseled in Strawberry Fields.  Memories of George in Los Angeles recording studios are etched in our minds.  Ringo and Paul sightings in the Hollywood Hills have become as natural as any other celebrity on the west coast.  We share the music with the world, but somehow we came to sense that The Beatles adopted America, and Americans unofficially adopted The Beatles.  Yet they are British, beloved here in a way I never before fully understood or felt until I spent this joyous time with their countryman.  Their fans here are perpetual, like those who have shared Shakespeare and Dickens and even Lloyd Webber with the entire world.  The creativity and inspiration that has flowed generation after generation from this island in the North Atlantic never ceases to blow my mind.  The impact is astonishing, the consistency in trendsetting almost baffling.  The people here are exceptionally proud that so much of what has touched them has touched so many others all over the world.  The Beatles are a part of them and carry their love to us in ways that words cannot convey.  You simply have to be on your feet in the crowded room feeling the music penetrate your bone mass to get it.  You say you want a revolution?  That’s a revolution.

Now back to a few words on age, which I think is what really brought that tear to the corner of my eye.  When that Yellow Submarine on the scrim behind the band sails through the Sea of Holes and past the Sea of Time to the Sea of Green, something enduring becomes clear, almost too real.  John was taken from us, and hasn’t been here since I was a freshman in college.  I still feel that loss.  George has left us, and my guitar still gently weeps.  We graciously do have Paul and Ringo — Ringo is even opening an exhibit this summer at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.  Two Beatles no longer living, but all four Beatles somehow alive.  And the fans, The Boomers born between 1945 and 1964, each day a few more slip away.  At the end of that tail, I have the least gray hair, some have all gray hair, some have no hair at all.  When the Paul character sings, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” it’s the midrange of the audience.  He was in his 20s when he wrote it.  They were all in their 20s when they created that vast catalog of songs — not a bad one to boot — all in less than a working decade.  Those songs remain as vibrant and relevant today as they were when we bought the singles on vinyl 45s.

How does that work?

The music keeps us young.  The music compels us to stay young.  When we hear and feel the music we have no ailments, no doctors to see, no life letdowns or shortcomings or missed opportunities.  We are optimists with our lives entirely ahead of us, just as we were when we first heard the needle hit the record, pops and hisses, mono and stereo.  We remember all the lyrics, every guitar riff, where the drumsticks hit the cymbals, and when it’s time to harmonize on the refrains.  We hold onto this because it keeps our youth, our joy, our hope.  When you see an aging couple set aside their walking canes, swaying their hands in the air left to right and right to left on the final chords of Hey Jude, you know magic is happening.  Time travel is indeed possible.  You are transported in mind and in toe-tapping body.  The music is that perfect, that potent, that mystical, that important.  It just feels that good.

We boomers didn’t get everything right.  We know that.  We know that peace and love and world harmony are still elusive dreams.  The Beatles make it possible for us to feel those dreams anew, to be young in a way that is transformational, a dream as only it can be, a perpetual time to Imagine.

You can always see the clock ticking.  You can always know what time it is.  You can’t take away youth.