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A Beatles tribute that represents the continuing story of 'The White Album'

Todd Rundgren, Micky Dolenz, Christopher Cross, Joey Molland of Badfinger, and Jason Scheff of Chicago teamed up on a tour dubbed “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: A Tribute to The Beatles' White Album.” The tour continues on through December.

By Bill Kopp

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Tribute concerts and tours are a fixture of today's live music experience. Sometimes they're self-tribute: Legacy acts take advantage of decades of goodwill and embark on victory-lap tours in which they recreate some of their most revered work. Brian Wilson has been touring for years in support of his 1966 masterwork Pet Sounds. The Zombies brought Odessey and Oracle to modern-day audiences, and even corralled all of the surviving band members for a tour. Arthur Lee is gone, but his longtime band members (the core of the underrated L.A. band Baby Lemonade) continue, a vivid reminder that Love's Forever Changes deserves all of the accolades it (belatedly) earned.

Traditional tribute bands are a significant part of the live music business today, as well. First- and second-tier markets across the United States are visited regularly by touring tribute acts performing the music of groups that no longer exist: Pink Floyd, the Doors, Michael Jackson, Sublime and countless others. Surviving associates of important artists have come together to pay tribute as well; Dweezil Zappa plays the music of his late father, and “A Bowie Tribute: The David Bowie Alumni Tour” features a stellar band that brings the departed icon's music to life in a faithful and compelling manner.

Even holograms have gotten in on the act, albeit not without great controversy. Modern technology is being used to bring back Frank Zappa, Ronnie James Dio, Whitney Houston, Roy Orbison, Tupac Shakur and others. Audiences are apparently quite willing to pay to see “live” concerts featuring projected images of their musical heroes.

And as far back as 2001, well-known musicians teamed up for a spin on all of that tribute activity. Led by producer-engineer-bandleader Alan Parsons, the “A Walk Down Abbey Road” tour was an all-star tribute to the music of the Beatles, featuring Ann Wilson of Heart, Who bassist John Entwistle and Todd Rundgren. In the wake of the tour's success, a 2002 series of dates found Parsons and Rundgren joined by Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Raspberries leader Eric Carmen, Mark Farner of Grand Funk and soft-rock singer-guitarist Christopher Cross.

While the connections between some of those artists and the Beatles themselves were tenuous at best, all could make a claim to have been influenced by the Fab Four. And there was no denying the appeal of seeing top-flight musicians and singers play the music of the Beatles, interspersing their own best-loved original material into the set.

Fast forward to 2019. With many of rock's leading lights now well into their 70s, it's to be expected that their touring schedules might slow down. But for some, nothing could be farther from the truth. Rundgren has been performing nearly nonstop, both as a solo artist (on tours under his own name and as part of a recent triple-bill featuring Yes and Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy). Just last year he reactivated the four-man lineup of his 1970s and '80s band Utopia, touring that group's catalog material to great acclaim.

Monkees star Micky Dolenz has been nearly as busy. He reunited with Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork to record the well-received Good Times! in 2016. After Tork's death, Dolenz and Nesmith performed their old band's music in a tour billed as “The Monkees Present: The Mike and Micky Show.”

And now Rundgren and Dolenz have teamed up with three other busy musicians: Cross, Joey Molland of Badfinger, and Jason Scheff of Chicago. The five – backed by an ensemble that will include Gil Assayas from Rundgren's Utopia – are fronting a tour dubbed “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: A Tribute to The Beatles' White Album.”

Released worldwide in late November 1968, The Beatles was a sprawling double album that seemed to delight and confound long-time fans in equal measure. The wide variety of music on the records represented both its strength and weakness. “I thought we should probably have made a very, very good single album rather than a double,” said producer George Martin in an interview years after its release. “But they insisted.” Recording engineer Geoff Emerick held a similar view. In his memoir Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick wrote, “Personally I think it’s their least inspired effort.”

But while the record has its share of seemingly dashed-off tracks – Paul McCartney's “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don't We Do It in the Road” – and eight-plus minutes of resolutely uncommercial musique concrète in the form of John Lennon's “Revolution 9,” The Beatles also includes some of the finest songwriting and playing of the band's career. Though The Beatles often is, as it's so often described, a collection of songs in which each of the four individual Beatles is backed by the other three, it rightly occupies an important place in rock history.

Though only on single was released from the album (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” b/w George Harrison's “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), The Beatles includes several classics. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Blackbird,” “Birthday” and “Helter Skelter” (all McCartney compositions) would become staples of FM radio. And Lennon's best contributions – “Dear Prudence,” “I'm So Tired,” “Julia and “Sexy Sadie among them” – remain fan favorites. Thirty-one tracks in all, The Beatles represented where the group was musically at the time, and remains an effective time capsule of 1968.

Today, the body of work that is "The White Album" presents creative opportunities for the distinctive talents of Rundgren, Molland, Dolenz, Cross and Scheff. Aided by musical director Joey Curatolo, who performs the same role for Beatles tribute act Rain, the members of the touring group can pick and choose from among the album's tunes, digging into the ones that suit them best.

Rundgren singles out Harrison's “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for special praise. He sang the song on the “A Walk Down Abbey Road” tour, and it remains a favorite of his. Calling it “the highlight of the entire record,” Rundgren says that the song is notable because it was “the collaboration of George Harrison, who I had learned so much from, and Eric Clapton, who was my principal guitar idol at the time.” He'll sing the song on the tour. “I demanded it,” he says.

Todd Rundgren readily admits that he views The Beatles as an uneven record. “The album is incoherent,” he says, “and contains stuff that a lot of us found curious, but not essential, like 'Revolution 9.'” But he acknowledges that for many listener's it remains a classic. “I think there were diehard Beatles fans who said, 'Anything they wanna do, I’ll go for that.' But it sort of marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.”

Like many listeners, he thinks of The Beatles as the sound of individuals. “A lot of it was obviously the different guys in the band going in their own directions,” Rundgren says. “There was less and less 'Lennon-McCartney' and more and more McCartney or Lennon or Harrison. As it turned out, I was disappointed in the record.”

Yet Rundgren's disappointment was and remains tempered by his appreciation for some the the album's lesser-known cuts. He mentions Harrison's “Savoy Truffle.” “That song revealed [George's] hidden talents that had been overshadowed by Lennon and McCartney,” he says.

Rundgren never worked with the Beatles, though he does have a strong Beatles connection. The singer and multi-instrumentalist was a member of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band in 1992, 1999 and from 2012 to 2017. And decades earlier, Rundgren had been brought in to replace producer George Harrison (then busy planning the Concert for Bangladesh) on sessions for Badfinger's 1971 album Straight Up. That's when he first met guitarist Joey Molland, guitarist in the Beatles protégé band signed to Apple Records.

That time wasn't a happy one for the group. Molland recalls those sessions as “a very unpleasant experience; Todd was so arrogant.” But he concedes that Rundgren has a different view. Years later when he approached his former producer about their time together in the studio, he says that Rundgren replied, “That's how you remember it, but it wasn't really like that.”

“He enjoyed himself,” Molland says. “That's kind of weird.” But Molland – the sole surviving member of Badfinger's classic lineup – shrugs it off, always looking forward to getting onstage with Rundgren. “Todd Rundgren is a great guitar player.”

A Liverpool native a few years younger than the Beatles, Molland was 21 when "The White Album" was released. By that time he was already a professional musician himself, a member of Gary Walker & the Rain. He recalls the first time he heard the double album. “I liked a lot of it,” he says. “Some of it I felt was a bit weird, but I really enjoyed it and I liked the way it was still a Beatle album.”

Molland recognized the album's experimental nature, but he preferred the more straightforward cuts. He mentions “Glass Onion” and “I'm So Tired” – both Lennon compositions – as favorites. “And 'Cry Baby Cry,'” he adds. “That's one of the songs I'm doing.”

Joey Molland also takes the spotlight for two more Lennon numbers, “Dear Prudence” and “Revolution 1,” the slower arrangement of the non-album hit single. He says that the process of song selection came naturally and without conflict.

“Luckily we didn’t all step on each other’s toes with everybody wanting to do 'Back in the USSR,'” Molland says with a good-natured laugh. “Everybody wanting to do this, that … it wasn’t like that.”

On the tour, Rundgren will be out front singing and playing on some of the album's heavier, rocking songs including “Helter Skelter,” “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.”

When it's jokingly suggested that Christopher Cross might take the lead vocal on the eight-minute avant garde audio collage “Revolution 9” – a work to which Yoko Ono contributed to some degree – Rundgren laughs. “Yeah, that's it. And I'll be rolling around in a bag onstage.”

Molland chuckles when it's pointed out that there's not a great deal of stylistic overlap between the sort of music with which he's associated and that of former Monkee Micky Dolenz or Christopher Cross. “Christopher is a great songwriter, and a great performer as well,” he says. “Micky is a giant star still; he’s well loved by his fans. And he’s a lovely guy. So it should all work out.”

All of the co-headlining musicians on the “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today” tour have extensive catalogs of their own upon which to draw for the concert set list. Dolenz released nine albums with the Monkees during the group's heyday, and scored many hit singles. Badfinger's classic lineup made six highly regarded albums between 1970 and '74; among their string of hits is “Baby Blue,” a song that gained renewed popularity when used in the final scene of Breaking Bad.

Jason Scheff replaced longtime Chicago lead singer Peter Cetera, remaining with the band for four decades. Christopher Cross won five Grammy Awards for his 1979 self-titled debut album (and a 1981 Academy Award for “Arthur's Theme”). Rundgren has enjoyed a career filled with critically acclaimed albums, as well as hit singles including “Hello It's Me, “Can We Still Be Friends” and “Bang the Drum All Day.”

“Don’t expect us to go on and jam our way through Beatles songs,” Molland cautions. “Because they don’t lend themselves to that.” He says that the evening of music will be full: about 45 songs over the course of approximately two hours. “It sounds like a fun show, doesn’t it?” he offers.

“Everybody loves the Beatles,” Molland points out. “Everybody loves to do Beatles songs. And 'The White Album' is a great record; there are lots of great songs on it to do. And it just seemed like a good idea.”

[For remaining dates of the tribute tour through December, click here.]

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Goldmine‘s November issue (above) is centered around The Beatles’ Abbey Road. In 1969, this blockbuster release took the music world by storm. Fifty years later, it is doing the same, with brand new editions of the remixed album. Learn all there is to know about these new editions and the history behind one of rock’s greatest albums.

The November 2019 issue will be on newsstands (select Barnes & Noble and Books A Million stores) until November 4. Get your copy now!