Sgt. Pepper at Discovery Green
Man, there is a lot going on downtown this weekend. Not only are there a bunch of good shows in the clubs (see elsewhere in this section for details), but it's also the second and final week of the Houston International Festival.
And we will have more on the iFest a little later, but there's one more worthy show going down in the heart of town: a reprise of the Fab 40's stunningly constructed note-for-note re-creation of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This will be only the second time the huge ensemble has performed it — first was back in October at the Continental Club. The Sunday afternoon show was utterly packed, and attendees were rewarded with what proved to be something far beyond a mere tribute show. Many of the dozens of players wore Sgt. Pepper's-style costumes, and no tone was left unturned in playing as close a facsimile to the record as possible. Indian musicians performed George Harrison's foray into Eastern mysticism "Within You, Without You." A live harpist tickled out the intro to "She's Leaving Home." Horns blasted away on "Good Morning, Good Morning." A quartet of keyboardists banged out the carnival-esque, lysergic whirl of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."
For many in attendance, this writer included, the Sunday afternoon show was very much like a religious experience. It was a kid-friendly affair, and several families were three generations deep, singing along, young and old alike with tears in their eyes. I read the news today, oh boy, indeed.
About all that didn't come off well were the crescendo to "A Day in the Life" and the fact that they did not have a live rooster crowing on cue for the intro to "Good Morning."
This time around, the show will be at brand-spanking-new park Discovery Green, and bassist-singer David Blassingame says the performance will be even more fleshed out. For one thing, it will have better sound, he says, thanks to fancier gear. Also, as was the case last time around, Blassingame, drummer Steve Candelari, guitarists Ryan Guidry, Chase Hamblen and Jon Townshend, percussionist Alison Zollars and keyboardists Stephen Arthur and Steve Callahan comprise the core band, but Blassingame says there are even more extra players adding oomph where needed.
"People are calling us to be in this show — orchestra-type people, strings and brass guys," he says. "So we've got a much bigger group than last time. I think we are maybe up to about 43." That's up from around 30 last time around. Blassingame says this is pretty much as big as it can get, and he's had to turn some would-be Fab 40s away.
The transcendent "Day in the Life" crescendo on the record was produced by 40 musicians overdubbed in four layers. Blassingame thinks they might have enough people to pull it off live convincingly this time. (At the Continental show, it was so feeble it was funny — an anticlimactic climax.) "I think we are up to about 15 string players and eight brass players," he says.
Last time around, since they knew then that they didn't have what they needed on that crescendo, the show ended not with "A Day in the Life" but with a "bonus track" — "All You Need Is Love." Blassingame promises to keep that song in the set-list, plus more. "We're gonna do multiple bonus cuts. We're gonna do 'All You Need Is Love' again, plus we're gonna do 'Hey Jude.' And if the crowd is still there and they haven't kicked us out, we may go into some other Beatle rocker numbers."
Expect to be amazed by this ensemble's rendition of "Hey Jude," thanks to Bruce Jameson's horn section. "He's normally the drummer for Beetle, but he also plays alto sax and coordinates the brass for us, and this time it's a much bigger group," Blassingame says. "In fact, the other day we did a run-through of everything and I think everybody got chill-bumps when we got to where the strings and the brass come in on the 'Na-na-na-naaah.'"
Blassingame says early arrivers are also in for some cool tunes. Indian musicians will jam raga-style with special surprise twists into Beatle melodies, and Blassingame says violinist Vanessa Vera — the concertmistress of the string section of this orchestra — will perform a "fantasy on 'Eleanor Rigby.'" "It's very interesting," says Blassingame. "A sort of modern adaptation of the song, very dramatic."
As if hearing Sgt. Pepper's played live on a spring night in the shadow of the skyline doesn't offer enough of a touchy-feely prospect, the whole concert is sponsored by the Houston Musicians Benevolent Society and will be held in honor of the late Rory Miggins. Have any two entities done more to help Houston musicians than Miggins, whose willingness to lend a helping hand was legendary, and the H.M.B.S.?
"We're all musicians and we've all known somebody that's been down and out, and we like the idea of helping people out, especially people we knew who were geniuses but just had so many problems," says Blassingame of the Benevolent Society.
In fact, the Benevolent Society once helped out Stephen Adams, the ailing guitarist and British Invasion preservationist who originally had the idea for re-creating Sgt. Pepper live. Adams, once the leader of the local band Dreambreakers, suffered a stroke and is now in assisted living in St. Louis. Nevertheless, Blassingame says he will be as much at this show in spirit as he was at the first one. "It makes me very sad, but we still get inspiration from him," he says. "We still always ask ourselves, 'What would Stephen do?'"
Meanwhile, a few blocks away at iFest...Saturday's highlights include appearances by Houston-based Congolese musician Emman LeGrand, two performances by local roots-rock/alt-country legends the Hollisters, trad-Cajun innovators the Bluerunners, the Soul Rebels Brass Band, the Neville Brothers, blues belter Shemekia Copeland (daughter of Third Ward's own Johnny Clyde Copeland), lightning-fingered Dominican merengue accordion master Joaquin Diaz, and the Lowrider Band, which, for all intents and purposes, is in reality the band War of "Cisco Kid" fame (see "Why Can't We Be Friends?," page 51).
It will be alt-country day on the Houston stage, with performances by the Hollisters, Sean Reefer, Miss Leslie, Johnny Falstaff and Sugar Bayou, while the Latin stage sports Mexican rockers Somabit, Joaquin Diaz, the bluesy psychedelic rock of Argentine-Houstonian brother band Espantapajaros, and Los Pistoleros de Texas, former Los Skarnales accordionist Robert Rodriguez's San Antonio-style conjunto.
All that and zydeco (Brian Jack), acoustic soul (Joe Lee McCoy), Barrie Lee Hall's tribute to Duke Ellington and Carolyn Blanchard's to Lena Horne, drum circles, a kid-friendly hip-hop jam (led by Bobbie Fine), gospel and tales from Queen Quet, the Gullah Griot.
And there will be lots and lots of dancers, from India, Azerbaijan, Mexico, China and Ethiopia. According to iFest education coordinator and performing arts director Rick Mitchell, the National Dance Theater of Ethiopia, which is making its American debut here, is especially worth seeing.
"Last year, iFest President Jim Austin and Jew Don Boney went to Ethiopia and saw them and came back raving about them," Mitchell says. "There has been a lot of traffic lately between Houston and Ethiopia because of the Lucy exhibit, and so the Ethiopian government has offered to help us bring them here, partially because they are so happy about how the Lucy exhibit has turned out."
Mitchell says that the dancers are backed by a quintet of live musicians. "The music sounds north African, but the dance moves are sub-Saharan African," he says. "We've seen Senegalese and South African dancing, but we've never seen anything quite like this — Ethiopia is the crossroads between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and the music reflects that. And one more important point not to forget: The women are beautiful."
Sunday's main-stage highlights include Menwar, a group from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Mitchell says the group's trip is sponsored in part by a French Bureau of Export grant, and that their music has a Caribbean, Rasta cargo chant, pirate vibe. "Even though it's from halfway around the world, it reminds me of reggae," he says. "Mauritius has that same mix Madagascar has, or Réunion Island, where you have that African influence and a little Indian and Indonesian influence, and then kind of that cross-pollinating of European influences, both French and Portuguese."
Also appearing is the Garifuna Collective, the Afro-Belizean group which sadly lost its leader earlier this year. "Andy Palacio was an icon of Central American music and a member of the government in Belize," Mitchell says. "And last year he released an album that was world music album of the year in most polls, and then he dies tragically in his mid-40s of a heart attack." His band decided to soldier on without him. "He was not the only talent on the tour," Mitchell says. "Umalali, the women's collective who were backing singers for Palacio, should be big later this year after their album comes out."
Hugh Masekela was supposed to lead a Pan-African jam session to close the main stage down, but the South African jazz giant was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year and had to pull out. As a fill-in, Mitchell enlisted no less a personage than Taj Mahal — in Mitchell's words, "the one North American blues musician who has built a career out of demonstrating the connections between North American music and Caribbean music and African music."
And I'm out of space. But trust me, there's plenty more good stuff on the bill. But since we're talking about a Sunday lineup, we will offer one last tip: Don't miss Bay City gospel group the Jones Family Singers for a dose of Pentecostal Holy Ghost power.
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