Australia journal - June 1999

Beatlemania and other anachronisms

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On Saturday, the day before the wedding, Rita and Donna (Rita's oldest friend and the mother of the bride) and I were browsing the hippie merchandise at an outdoor bazaar in the Brunswick Mall, in the excellently-named Fortitude Valley district (just a few blocks from our hotel) when we were accosted by Shana Carroll and her sister Rachel, who were sipping coffees at Fat Boy's sidewalk cafe when they saw us walk by in the throng.

Shana is a trapeze artist, touring Australia with Cirque du Soleil.  We were dazzled by her  performance - no, I'd say I was scared shitless by her solo trapeze routine - Thursday night (The rest of the show, "Saltimbanco," is also terrific).  Rachel, who lives in Oakland, had arrived in Australia the day before for a nine-day visit.

Shana explained that the Cirque was having a big special party the next night (St. Jean-Baptiste day?  Something like that -- the July 4 of Quebec), and the theme was "retro" -- so many of the performers and crew, including Shana and her gorgeous Spanish pal, had come to exactly the right spot in Brisbane to shop for '60s rags.  Shana showed off a pair of denim bell-bottoms that made Rita and Donna laff out loud (because they wore such stuff in earnest Back in The Day), and the Barcelona beauty displayed a velour top in some hideous loud color.

We sat down together for 20 minutes or so, shooting the shit about the circus, Australia, long-distance air travel, frequent-flyer miles, work, family, retro clothes, what we had bought at the bazaar and what we were going to buy, and so on.  Rachel seemed quite alert, considering she had arrived in Brisbane only 27 hours before.  She appeared to have made it into this time zone in impressively short order.

While Rita and Donna shopped on, I walked back to the hotel to get some exercise and do some writing.
 
 

In the evening, Rita and I walked through the CBD (Central Business District) and grabbed a bite at a sidewalk cafe up the block from the Festival Hall.  While we ate, we watched a parade of Aging Boomers heading for the Beatels concert which was also our destination.

We witnessed a classic scene in the queue to get in.  The guy who got in line just ahead of us tapped the guy right in front of him -- "What are the chances of our meeting in the queue like this!" -- and introduced his mate: "This is Paul.  He was in the first band I was in right out of high school!"  I could tell by his haircut he was either still playing music or wishing he was.

This was by no means a big-time concert event, although in a country of 14 million it may be that American-style stalag security just hasn't become necessary.  The guy who tore our tickets, and several of the ushers, looked like they might have been working there on the night in question 35 years ago.  So did a fair share of the audience, though there were plenty of younger people -- including teenagers -- in the audience as well.

There were maybe 1500 people in the Festival Hall, which we're told is most often used for boxing matches.  But this is where the Beatles played exactly 35 years ago, and my friend Rik Elswit played here with Dr. Hook some time between then and now - and he says the acoustics sucked.  The side risers were blocked off by gray curtains, and the rear risers were empty.  There was plenty of room to move around.

Our seats were in the tenth row, on the right-center aisle -- right at the edge of the boxing ring, judging by the position of the lighting grid overhead -- 25 good old-fashioned incandescent lights under metal reflectors.  The walls and ceiling were painted black.  The lighting rig was pretty simple -- a few cans at the foot of the stage, several fixed spots hanging in front, and three underpopulated trusses behind.  There was one Super Trooper up in the booth, with a union guy standing by, but it was never used during the show.

The opening act was Jenny Balmer and Midnight Highway, forgettable country-rock band fronted by a woman who looked like Gennifer Flowers.  The harmony singer was off-pitch a lot, and the lead guitarist wore a vest and no shirt.  The musical director, stereotypically enough, was a serious-looking keyboardist with a receding hairline.  He was also the author of the featured ballad.

After the opening act's gear was removed, on the stage - as advertised - were nothing but Vox amps and a simple drum kit.  One mic for "Paul" and "George."  A few more mics on the drums than there would have been in 1964.  The PA system was modest, but modern -- thank god!

The compere, a stocky gent from a local radio station, asked how many people in the audience tonight had been there on the original date.  A few hands went up.  The crowd was not as enthusiastic as I expected, and I expect the compere and the band were hoping for a little more period gush as well.

The Beatels came out dressed in black pants and vests, white shirts and thin black ties.  "Paul" had the requisite Hofner bass; "George" had his Gretsch; "John" played a black and white Rickenbacker; and "Ringo" had a Spartan Ludwig kit, on a riser, of course.

They began with the 30-minute set the Fabs had played on that very stage exactly 35 years before:

I Saw Her Standing There
I Want to Hold Your Hand
You Can't Do That
All My Loving
She Loves You
Til There Was You
Roll Over Beethoven
Can't Buy Me Love
Twist and Shout
This Boy
Long Tall Sally

This was the most exciting part of the show, by far.  The songs were short and the performances energetic, even though the audience was seated and polite throughout.  That music is just so damn fine, you'd have to be pretty bad musicians to mess it up.  The arrangements were  faithful to the records, and the George guy had his parts down pretty good - along with the detached, staring-off-into-space look.

After completing the '64 set, the band took a short break and then came back with the same instruments but slightly different clothes.  John was wearing a brown jacket and rose-colored glasses.  "This is Rubber Soul!" proclaimed Paul.  They played:

Day Tripper
Bad Little Boy
We Can Work It Out
Help!
A Hard Day's Night
I Wanna Be Your Man
I Feel Fine
Taxman
Paperback Writer
Rain
Nowhere Man
Drive My Car

The Paul guy was just as insincere-sounding as the original.  He kept exhorting the audience to sing along, without much success.  His speaking-Paul voice was more convincing than his singing-Paul voice in a lot of ways.  That was more true for "John," who spoke less on stage but looked a good deal more like his role model to begin with.  He chewed gum throughout the show, as the real John always seemed to do.

The George guy was pretty solid on the guitar, sticking pretty closely to the parts from the records.  His lead vocal turns weren't too impressive - but he was way better than the Ringo guy, whose voice, particularly on "Yellow Submarine," was markedly substandard.

As the show went on, the illusion grew less convincing.  The band did a reasonable job of re-creating the songs up to the Revolver era, but from that point on they weren't even helped much by the pre-recorded accompaniments they used.  And their vocals failed to capture the feeling of the psychedelic-era Beatles.   Still, it was great to hear the most important music of our lives brought back with such enthusiasm.

By mid-show, there were about 40 people dancing on the floor right in front of the stage, and swaying with their arms in the air during some of the dreamier numbers.  The rest of the audience, including Rita and myself, sat in our seats and applauded politely at the end of each song.  The Paul guy spoke breathlessly between songs, as if it were Shea Stadium.

Right next to Rita was a woman of about 50, wearing a red dress and holding a shiny alligator purse on her lap.  She had big hair and ladylike makeup, and she sat stock still throughout the performance.  I saw her moving her lips slightly, singing along to herself, now and then, but for the most part she carried herself as if she was waiting for a doctor appointment.

By contrast, there was a blond couple who moved up and down our aisle a couple of times, the tall long-haired guy carrying a drink and obviously having had plenty of 'em already.  His missus was dancing down at the front, and he went back and forth a few times during the show, always dancing a lurchy dance as he walked, always holding a drink.  She stayed down at the front for the most part, dancing joyously to the music.

Across the aisle I saw people of all age groups, enjoying themselves with great reserve: 50-somethings, their teenage kids, and lots of in-betweeners.

Rita adds: "There were three screens in back of the stage. The one in the center had clips of the old Beatles cartoon show running most of the time. The other two stayed plainly lit. From time to time two go-go dancers would emerge from backstage and step up in front of the screens and do the frug, the swim, the monkey.  They would disappear and re-emerge and do exactly the same dances as the night progressed.  At first they fit in - very appropriate to the time - but they were still doing the same steps when we hit 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and then it was distracting and annoying.

"A 'Psychedelic light show' was promised. What we had was a projection of colored mirror ball reflections, an oft -used smoke machine, wildly thrown around spots, and a film of blobby gels.  I found it pretty funny.  Oh yeah, there was a strobe light as well."

Another break, and then they came back out in Sgt. Pepper uniforms...

Tomorrow Never Knows
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band->
With a Little Help from My Friends
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
When I'm 64
Penny Lane
I Am the Walrus
Why Don't We Do It in the Road?
Come Together
Something
Yellow Submarine
Hey Jude
Revolution
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Let It Be

After Ob-La-Di, the Paul guy started to what sounded like it would be an introduction to "The Ballad of John and Yoko," but the pre-recorded (offstage?  I doubt it) piano intro to "Let It Be" started, and we decided we had had enough.  This show could have ended after "Revolution," and probably should have.   It could have ended after "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," too.  Maybe it ended after "Let It Be," but we were in a taxi before they got to the bridge so we'll never know.

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