Bienen takes on the Fab Four with ‘A Beatles Songbook’

Scott Ostrin, Columnist

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If you were at the Bienen School of Music’s event on Saturday, you may have seen me. Then again, considering the average age of attendance was roughly 64 — and thus the average eyesight was well above failing — you probably didn’t.

But aside from a short dance section, eyes were not really necessary at “A Beatles Songbook,” Northwestern’s show among a slew of shows this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in the United States. Most attendees in the audience probably remembered watching The Beatles live on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” so I’m sure this year has been especially nostalgic for them. Seriously, if you ever need to vacate Evanston of seniors for an evening, hold a Beatles cover event elsewhere.

As a Beatles fanatic, though, I was certainly not out of sorts with the audience. I applaud Chris Siebold, the musical director of the show, for his selection of songs. A particularly crabby audience member grumbled that “they were only playing esoteric songs” (what the hell is an esoteric Beatles song?), but as someone who has heard “Hey Jude,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “A Day in the Life” done to death, I was very pleased to hear renditions of songs that most people don’t normally think of when The Beatles are discussed. So kudos I guess, crotchety old man, even though there is no bigger oxymoron than The Beatles being esoteric.

But what about the music? Covers of songs ranged from faithful, to inventive, to just flat-out strange. The show opened with “Hey Bulldog,” a cute rocker with dog barks on “Yellow Submarine.” The song was recreated a little too faithfully in my opinion, trying to capture the spontaneous dialogue between John Lennon and Paul McCartney caught on tape and instead sounding forced and incoherent. It was not a strong opening for an audience intent on the classics, but for someone like me who enjoys Beatles songs that haven’t been caught in endless circulation, it was a daring way to start the show.

The show quickly found its pacing between straightforward, rock covers (with some self-indulgent guitar solos) in the form of “Hello, Goodbye,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and an instrumental version of “Across the Universe;” fugues (explained in detail by pianist Anthony Molinaro) based on “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life;” dance interpretations of “From Me to You” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy);” and finally many a cappella renditions. There was also a weird harmonica solo version of “Girl” and a Spanish version of “Michelle,” both of which were mawkish and sounded nothing like the original songs. I can appreciate the idea of a Spanish Michelle, but “Girl,” a song heavily reliant on its lyrics to literally convey a narrative (“Is there anybody going to listen to my story” is the opening lyric) fell flat without Lennon’s words.

It may sound as if the show was a total bust, but I think it’s safe to say that the covers that worked well don’t merit that much discussion. They captured the sound of the original recording without twisting too much out of proportion. The vaudeville “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” was perfectly covered in a cappella, as the harmonies managed to recall the circus sounds of the original recording.

But covers that strayed, like the oddly sensual dance interpretation of “From Me to You” (which was even more discomforting due to the audience) are much more ripe for discussion. For example, what was going through the director’s head when he (I assume it was Mr. Siebold) decided to cover a light, pop song as a heavy, soulful, whisper-sensuous piece with a visual dance display? It gave a far greater weight to lyrics such as “I got arms that long to hold you/And keep you by my side/I got lips that long to kiss you/And keep you satisfied, ooh,” which ultimately didn’t work.  The erotic whispers and vibrating hums of the singer’s voice will echo in my nightmares.

My final opinion? The show was inconsistent, with faithful covers ringing true, out-there covers being… well, out-there, and somewhere in between there would be a lovely fugue by Anthony Molinaro. There was no “Hey Jude,” but there was a “Here, There and Everywhere” waltz, and that’s good enough for me.