by John M. Borack
It’s always a beautiful thing when great musicians get together for a great cause, and that very thing occurred in North Hollywood, CA earlier this year when a talented and eclectic array of more than 50 pop musicians and vocalists pooled their considerable talents by performing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band albums in their entirety at a benefit for the Autism Think Tank. The Think Tank is committed to improving the lives of autistic children and their families in the home, school and community through comprehensive case management, community outreach and education, and support for the cause could be felt throughout the capacity crowd – and also backstage – at the El Portal Theater. “It’s a great cause to be sure, and I’m always happy to be a part of anything to do with the Beatles,” UK singer/songwriter John Wicks of the Records told me before the show. (Wicks sang on a high energy version of “I’m Looking Through You” along with the Bangles’ Debbi Peterson.)
Organized by LA-area music aficianados David Jenkins and Paul Rock, the festivities featured a house band billed as the Wild Honey Orchestra, led by musical director Rob Laufer and fortified by several members of the LA pop mafia, including Derrick Anderson (current bassist for the Bangles), drummer Jim Laspesa, percussionist Nelson Bragg and multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory (Bragg and Gregory have worked with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys). The playing was tasteful, appropriate and always true to the original sound, with strings, horns and Indian instrumentation used on the songs that featured them originally. Guitarist Rusty Anderson also joined the band for several songs; he was intimately familiar with much of the material, of course, since he’s toured with Paul McCartney for more than a decade.
A revolving door of guest vocalists each took turns singing a tune and while the results were predictably uneven at times, there were plenty of high points for the crowd to savor. (Or as Dan Wilson of Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic commented, “This is like a music nerd’s dream come true.”) So while there were minor missteps such as Carla Olson getting the proceedings off to a rocky start by completely forgetting the words to “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and Ruthann Friedman’s annoyingly campy reading of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” there were stellar performances from the likes of Matthew Sweet (“Nowhere Man,” “Day Tripper”), Tommy Keene (a spirited “Think For Yourself”), Keith Allison from Paul Revere and the Raiders (a countrified take of “Run For Your Life” with Bangles Vicki and Debbi Peterson providing vocal and instrumental support) and Ron Dante (“Getting Better”).
Dante, best known as lead vocalist of cartoon rockers the Archies, was excited to be a part of the evening. “It’s a great array of people, great players and great singers,” he told me, sentiments that were echoed by Vicki Peterson, who counts Rubber Soul as among her favorite records. Aside from Dante and Allison, classic rockers were well-represented with Chuck Negron (Three Dog Night), Susan and Bob Cowsill, Evie Sands and Michael Lee Smith (Starz, Looking Glass) all taking vocal turns.
Other high water marks included a smoothly crooned version of “Michelle” by LA-area indie popster Steve Stanley; a marvelously done take of “The Word” by Vicki Peterson and Darian Sahanaja (from Brian Wilson’s band and the Wondermints), with Rusty Anderson adding some guitar; and a gorgeously soulful reading of “She’s Leaving Home” by UK songstress Christine Collister (replete with a string section), which brought down the house and was easily the finest performance of the evening.
Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas also stepped out for a rare lead vocal, channeling Ringo Starr on a sprightly “What Goes On” while double drumming with Jim Laspesa. Discussing his fondness for the Fab Four backstage prior to the show – “my first record was With the Beatles, when I was 9-years-old,” he remembered – Thomas recalled backing Paul McCartney during a 1989 television appearance and practically pinching himself as they played “I Saw Her Standing There.” He also praised Ringo Starr’s drumming on “What Goes On”: “The damned thing is 97 BPM [beats per minute] for two-and-a-half minutes, all on the hi-hat; anyone who thinks Ringo wasn’t any good, try playing the hi-hat like that.”
Event co-organizer Paul Rock got a bit choked up when he thanked the audience for attending, as his young son Jake suffers from autism (Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are Jake’s two favorite albums). It was a sweet, heartfelt moment that really brought home the reason why so many talented folks came together to support the cause. For more information on the Autism Think Tank, visit http://www.autismthinktanknj.com/