Getting Better All the Time

Dozens of local musicians come together to honor stricken comrade Stephen Adams with a tribute show for the ages

Finally, someone executed one of Stephen Adams's big ideas — a faithful note-for-note live re-creation of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, complete with costumed musicians, and man did it ever turn out well. The Continental Club has seldom if ever been so packed, especially on a Sunday afternoon, and people — parents and children, men and women of every race — sang along with every song.

Let's back up a bit. Adams was the red-afroed guitarist in the Dreambreakers, a British Invasion tribute band that played all over town from about 2002 to 2005. What separated the Dreambreakers from virtually every other tribute band in the world was their zeal — Adams's reverence for the material was absolute, as was his and his band's ability and diligence in re-creating it.

Yes, many tribute bands do strive to do just that, but with the Dreambreakers there was an ardor that bordered on the fanatic. Adams treated the music as classical, rather than mere classic, rock.

The band had a good run for a couple of years, so much that the Dreambreakers came close to starring at their very own night club. Before fate intervened, plans were in place to give them a house-band slot at a club in the basement of the Montrose Boulevard high-rise that houses Scott Gertner's SkyBar. There, they would conserve the songs Adams loved, all of which came from a very specific timeframe: The era Adams was interested in covering spanned precisely the 1958 release of a specific Cliff Richard single and the 1972 issue of the Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe."

Sadly, Adams had far less skill in looking after himself than the legacy of bands like the Yardbirds, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Nashville Teens. As David Beebe once put it in his blog, he was the kind of guy who would trade off hits on an asthma inhaler with one Marlboro red after another. In November of 2005, Adams collapsed on a Midtown sidewalk after suffering a heart attack/stroke and lay still in a fire-ant bed for close to half an hour.

Today, he's only partially recovered and dwells in an assisted living facility in St. Louis. Nevertheless, you could feel his presence in the Continental Club two Sundays ago as his brainchild was birthed.

Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with Sgt. Pepper's, you will know that re-creating it was no mean feat, no rote recitation of a three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust Ramones album or something like that. This was something more like staging a musical than a run-of-the-mill gig, and the electricity among the 34 players assembled backstage before the show was more akin to what you find behind the curtain at the Alley Theatre rather than a nightclub dressing room.

The show was close to five months in the making. Back in June, former Dreambreakers drummer Steve Candelari remembered the guitarist's idea when he helped organize and perform on a similar 40th anniversary tribute show to the Monterey Pop Festival. He mentioned the Sgt. Pepper's idea to bassist Dave Blas­singame, a longtime friend and onetime high school classmate of Adams's. Blassingame ran with the idea — in Candelari's words, he "catapulted the show into ­happening."

"[Adams] was my music mentor, and he talked about doing this for so many years," says Blassingame. "After all [Adams's] problems, Candelari thought it would be a nice tribute to do the show and dedicate it to him, and raise some money for the Houston Musicians' Benevolent Society. They actually helped him before he left town, so that was a nice tie-in. A lot of the people who played the show knew [Adams] or played with him at some point, so that was an even better connection."

But to do Sgt. Pepper's in a way that would pass muster with Adams, they needed a lot of musicians. "He taught us to play this material in the right key if we can, to try to do it just like the record with the same instrumentation," Candelari says. "You hate to fake everything with keyboards. There's something about having the real sounds in the room with you, like the cello vibrating. It's a real earthy sound."

That would mean they would have to round up not just a cellist or two, but also a harpist for "She's Leaving Home," an old-school music-hall brass band for "When I'm 64," and an entire Indian ensemble for George Harrison's "Within You Without You."

Blassingame knew finding the brass players and Western classical musicians would be a snap — he's classically trained himself, and the father of a cello-­playing daughter who flew in for the gig. He was initially worried about rounding up the Indian players, but in the end, finding them was only slightly more difficult than tracking down his friends, as a quick Internet search dug up Vani, a local "raga-rock" ensemble.

"When they agreed to do it, we figured we had to do the show," Candelari says. "We knew finding them was the hardest part. It was kinda amazing how everything took on a life of its own."

The little army of musicians — totaling about three dozen at the show — rehearsed weekly through the summer. (The core band included local rockers Chase Hamblen and Ryan Guidry and a keyboard player as well as Candelari and ­Blassingame.)

Blassingame says the practices never failed to be interesting. "It was the funniest thing seeing how all these people interacted," he remembers. "On Sundays, we would rehearse at David Courtney's house in the Heights — he's in Vani, the Indian band. They would always have this elaborate little tea service for us. They were just the nicest people in the world and it was so interesting how they were able to just immediately play everything. We rehearsed it all, but they knew it right away and played it right off the bat."

Not that the show would go off without a hitch. The sound check at the Continental dragged on and on while early arrivals grumbled outside in a line that wrapped around the club. And Candelari grants that the famous orchestral crescendos in "A Day in the Life" didn't come off that well. "It was kind of anticlimactic," he grants. You can't really blame him — on the album, what you hear is 40 musicians overdubbed in four layers. As if to compensate, the show ended not there but with a performance of "bonus track" "All You Need Is Love."

And in the end, love was what you got from this show. "It was just a wonderful experience," gushes Blassingame. "You saw how many people were there — I don't know if there has ever been that many people in the Continental Club that enthusiastic about something, where everybody was singing along. On our end, it was really something. I've done a lot of performances, and this was the most exciting thing I've ever done."

Don't feel too bad about missing it, as Candelari and Blassingame both want to do it again. "I kept everybody's e-mails and phone numbers," says Blassingame. Candelari says that it would be a shame to waste all that practice on just one performance — but adds that they will probably need a bigger room next time around.

He's probably right — this one flew right under the media's radar and still packed the house based on word of mouth alone. But such is to be expected when you've got popular material played by dozens of people — surely, most of the musicians could persuade a handful of people to come out and see them play. If each of the 36 musicians could persuade four people to come out, the Continental would be two-thirds full.

But now that this show has come off so well, the sky would seem to be the limit for this concept. There are many albums that have never, or at least very rarely, been played properly live. All too often, the ambition of musicians in the studio outstrips what is economically feasible to play live, as it is hard enough to make money with even a trio on the road, much less a band three times that big.

But if you play that music in your home city, that drawback is transformed into an advantage, for the reason I cited above. Sure, splitting the pot 36 ways won't make anybody rich, but the musicians did seem gratified and were at the very least not losing money, as they would be on the road.

Already there is talk about having another Sgt. Pepper's show at the Meridian, or maybe even Miller Outdoor Theatre or Jones Hall. And other albums are possibly on the agenda as well.

"I heard they did The White Album at the Continental in Austin," Candelari says. "That one would be fun to do. One of the horn players in the band Sunday mentioned doing Pet Sounds."

"We are gonna do this album again somewhere, and then what's the next deal?" asks Blassingame.

"I'm thinking we could probably do The White Album, but how do you do 'Revolution #9'"? he continues. "Well, you could find some guys with some tape decks and some people who know musique concrète and they could do something really far-out."

Musique concrète? Once you've found a local raga-rock group, finding people who can swing that would seem like a snap.

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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