When Paul McCartney canceled his show scheduled for June 9 in New Orleans last year, a Beatles tribute series was inadvertently born.
Musicians who had taken the night off because they had tickets to see him — including Paul Sanchez, Debbie Davis and Davis Rogan — decided that if McCartney wasn’t going to sing his songs, they would.
With only days to get it together, they organized a night of songs that he wrote and performed with The Beatles and Wings.
The success of that show prompted a John Lennon night on Lennon’s birthday last October, and on Friday night at Tipitina’s, more than 20 musicians will turn their attention to George Harrison.
Harrison was late to the writing game with The Beatles, and his songs reflect a more humble sensibility than those of Lennon and McCartney. Some parts of his catalogue are beyond the reach of the band since electric sitars and sitar players are hard to find in New Orleans, while others have a clarity and single-mindedness that borders on innocent.
According to band leader Jonathan Pretus, of The Breton Sound, the show will feature highlights of his work with The Beatles, as well as songs from his solo career and as a member of The Traveling Wilburys.
For Pretus, the concert is a labor of love.
“There are few people I know who are bigger Beatle nerds than me,” he said. One is the writer Bruce Spizer, who specializes in The Beatles; the other is Dash Rip Rock drummer Kyle Melancon, who’ll be part of the show, as well. The two have bonded over alternative mixes of Beatles albums, Melancon showing his knowledge when he recognized the differences between versions that came out on albums in the U.K. and America and the versions on German and other foreign pressings.
“He beat me in ‘Trivial Pursuit,’ ” Pretus conceded.
Melancon is excited to participate.
“They were my favorite band growing up and they’re still my favorite band. It’s accurate to say that they’re the reason I became a musician,” he said. “I distinctly remember being little and going to the library every week to check out a different book on The Beatles to try and piece together the history as best I could. My library card name was ‘Richard Starkey’ (Ringo Starr’s real name).”
Andre Bohren, of Johnny Sketch and The Dirty Notes, was the band leader for the John Lennon tribute, and he’s behind the drums again for the Harrison show because he also plays in The Walrus, a band that specializes in The Beatles and already knows much of the material.
“That’s the house band, augmented by people like Jonathan and other guitar players and Josh Paxton (on keyboards),” Bohren said.
Working on the Harrison tribute has helped Bohren appreciate the personal nature of George’s songs. While many of McCartney’s chord progressions were easy to figure out, Harrison’s are less predictable with chords formed in unusual ways for a rock band. Because of that —and because people want to hear the songs the way they know them—few liberties are being taken with the songs. In tribute shows, it’s not uncommon to change a song’s key to suit the singer and they did it a number of times for the John Lennon tribute, but that’s not happening this time.
“We were fooling around with moving (the key of) ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ but the guitar part sounds wrong when it’s not in that key,” Bohren said. “It really does change the whole song.”
Similarly, the instrumentation will be reasonably faithful when possible, even when that means leaving such musicians as Alex McMurray, Dash Rip Rock’s Bill Davis, David Pomerleau, Marc Paradis and Skeet Hanks backstage for a song.
“A lot of George songs only have one guitar because Lennon didn’t bother to show up,” Pretus said. “ ‘Something’ — he’s not on it. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ — he’s only on it in vocal. There’s no rhythm guitar.”
Still, the number of performers involved will make it possible to capture not only the songs but the details that make the recordings special. An army of guitar players and singers will allow them to put small lineups onstage for intimate numbers, then recreate the dense, expansive, communal sound of Harrison’s three-record masterpiece, “All Things Must Pass.”
The McCartney show came together with one rehearsal, partly because it had to since it was organized on short notice. The Harrison tribute will involve at least three rehearsals with part of the point being to arrange the backing vocals, which will be sung by Susan Cowsill and Debbie Davis as well as Bohren and Pretus.
“The backing vocalists are the unsung heroes of a lot of these songs,” Bohren said. “There’s a lot of great, really intricate vocal stuff that happens. We want to catch as much of that as we can, and we have the singers to do it.”
Darcy Malone Boye is part of The Walrus with Bohren and also sings in The Tangle. As the daughter of The Radiators’ Dave Malone, she has never known life without Harrison and The Beatles.
“My dad made sure they were the very first band I knew and knew well,” she said. The Beatles had split up before Boye was born, but that has never affected her relationship to them and their music.
“For my mom and dad, it was so personal because they lived through it,” she said. “I’m sure it was heartbreaking, but for me they’ve never ‘broken up.’ I only know The Beatles as a band together.”
After tributes to John, Paul and George, the obvious question is whether or not there will be a Ringo Starr night as well. “I’d like to, but it’s tough with the limitations of his catalogue,” Pretus said. “I think it’d be like, maybe 12 Ringo songs, and then 10 or 12 other Beatles tunes we didn’t get to on the other shows. There’s a ton we haven’t done.”