by John M. Borack
A horde of pop music talent took to the stage to celebrate the music of the Beatles’ classic White Album as the Los Angeles-based musical aggregation known as the Wild Honey Orchestra – along with a gaggle of special guest vocalists who came from far and wide – recently performed the entire record in front of a packed house at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA. Emceed by “Breakfast With the Beatles” radio host Chris Carter (who interjected a bit of Beatle geek whimsy at the outset by assuring the crowd they were “not at the Magic Alex Theatre”) and attended by Beatles recording engineer Ken Scott and the former head of Apple Records, Jack Oliver, the show was the fourth Wild Honey shindig to benefit the Autism Think Tank. According to the event organizers, a total of nearly $100,000 was expected to be raised for the charity by the conclusion of the White Album show.
The evening got off to a rollicking start with a powerful version of “Back in the USSR” sung by Fountains of Wayne lead vocalist Chris Collingwood (who would return later in the show to sing on a fittingly raucous take of one of the evening’s “bonus tracks,” “Hey Bulldog,” alongside the supremely talented Thomas Walsh of Irish pop mavens Pugwash). From there it was off to the races, with the 30+ member Wild Honey Orchestra offering note-perfect instrumental and backing vocal support to guest vocalists ranging from Gary Wright (a passionate, emotive “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which featured guitarist Lyle Workman replicating the searing six-string lead) and Cindy Lee Berryhill (her fantastic reading of “Revolution 1” brought out some of the song’s country elements and was one of the evening’s highlights) to surprise guest Jules Shear (who did a fine job crooning “Sexy Sadie” while holding his dog in his arms all the while) and Kim Shattuck (supported by her band the Muffs, Susan Cowsill and XTC’s Dave Gregory on an uncharacteristically sweetly sung – and wonderful – “I Will”).
Once again, the rhythm section of bassist Derrick Anderson and drummer Jim Laspesa was beyond compare. Both veteran LA-area musicians (Anderson currently plays bass with the Bangles, while Laspesa has plied his trade with the Muffs and Dave Davies) mastered the often tricky songs with ease; Anderson’s mimicking of Paul McCartney’s signature bass runs on “Dear Prudence” and Laspesa expertly handling the shifting time signatures on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” were just two of their high points. It’s also interesting to note that while the White Album was hailed as a “back to the basics” Beatles record upon its original release in 1968, there was still an awful lot going on musically in these 30 songs, from horns and strings and sound effects to harpsichords and bells. (Further proof of this was the fact that about a half dozen of the evening’s songs featured two bassists, with Michael Simmons joining Anderson onstage.) And while the bulk of the White Album tracks were never performed live by any of the Beatles during their respective solo careers, the White Honey Orchestra was more than up to the task of putting them across in a live setting; they didn’t seem to miss a trick (or a note) all evening.
It was obvious that everyone on stage was having a ball during the performances, and the sense of community and the rapport with the appreciative audience was palpable. Other moments of note include Syd Straw’s quirky and cool “Rocky Raccoon,” Christine Collister and Iain Matthews’ sublime “Cry Baby Cry” (voices sent from the heavens), a perfectly chaotic version of “Revolution” by Mitch Easter (which he introduced by saying, “Here’s a song so good that no one version can contain it”) and an achingly gorgeous reading of “Julia” by Susan Cowsill and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson (aka The Psycho Sisters). Oh, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the spectacularly bizarre (that’s a good thing), spot-on recreation of the sound collage “Revolution 9,” with its tape loops (created by mad genius/pop mensch Darian Sahanaja from Brian Wilson’s band), bursts of live piano, sound effects, live voice overs and, of course, the random intoning of “Number nine…number nine.” Big time kudos to Jim Mills and Heidi Servey for pulling off this arduous, seemingly impossible task.
By the time the marathon evening closed with Christine Collister leading the ensemble – and the audience – in a blissfully thunderous, near-gospel version of “Hey Jude,” it was quite clear that this was the finest Wild Honey show to date. Not sure how they’ll manage to top it next year, but it’ll certainly be fun to watch them try.