Imagine you’re a musical director, and that you’ve been tasked with producing a two-hour concert with the knowledge that 98 percent of your audience will not only know all the songs, but in most cases all the words to those songs, as well as most of the instrumental arrangements and solos, down to the last note.
The challenges for such a show, which are legion, will be met head-on by The Moondogs when they will present “The Beatles ’69 — ‘Let It Be’ & ‘Abbey Road,’” on Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
I first learned of the show while having a musical conversation (our guitars did most of the talking) with Jeff Levitt, who is one of a number of monster players tapped by musical director Mike Schiano for the band. As we talked, Levitt told me of the tremendous amount of completed musical homework each musician needed to bring to rehearsal, (30 songs, yikes!), and other intriguing aspects of the production. My interest as a musician, producer and Beatle-freak (yep, watched the Ed Sullivan show at age 14) was piqued.
I called Schiano and asked him what he thought about the idea of me coming to a rehearsal and documenting it for publication. “Sure,” Schiano said, “maybe it will help drive ticket sales.” That’s probably something Mike need not worry about — these shows are almost guaranteed sell-outs. What began with a 50th anniversary Beatles tribute in 2014 continued the next year with a “Beatles/Stones Battle.” The band then decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper” in 2017 and it was a roaring success.
“The band really came together with Sgt. Pepper,” says Schiano. “The efforts by everyone involved paid off with two super shows and we were left thinking about what we could do next.” What followed was another sell-out show last year for the “George Harrison 75th Birthday Celebration.”
Besides Schiano and Levitt, the current band includes Moondogs co-founder Joe Lauro (of the Hoodoo Loungers) on bass guitar, Fred Gilde (of Mama Lee Rose and Friends) on keyboard/sound effects and vocals, Mick Hargreaves (of Joe Delia and the Thieves) on guitars and vocals, Dan Koontz (of Edna’s Kin, Nancy Atlas, the Hoodoo Loungers) on piano and organ and vocals and Dave Giacone (of the Hoodoo Loungers) on drums. In addition to his musical director hat, Schiano plays guitar and contributes lead and harmony vocals.
There have been six full band rehearsals and a number of practices just for the vocal parts leading up to next weekend’s show. “The vocals for Abbey Road were absolutely the most challenging, but each member of the band has as the same goal, to produce a sound as close as possible to the original,” said Schiano. Joe Lauro agrees. “‘Abbey Road’ has been 10 times as hard as ‘Let It Be,’ which was basically a live recording by a rock and roll band,” he said. Beatle historians will note that after the often-contentious self-production of “Let It Be,” the group asked producer George Martin to do one more album. He did, and the result was arguably one of the Beatle’s best efforts, but just a bear to cover.
I arrive at Mick Hargreaves’s “Lantern Sound” in Manorville and the band is setting up.
It’s crowded. There’s whiskey.
Giacone is in his cockpit behind the kit with Lauro and his bass (a Hofner, of course) to his left and Hargreaves with his two guitars to his right. Behind Hargreaves, Gilde has his Moog synthesizer and Nord stage piano ready to go and Schiano with his two guitars is set in the quarterback slot across from Giacone. Off to Schiano’s right is Koontz at the grand piano and to his right is Levitt with his two guitars. Scattered about are a plethora of amps, microphones and cables, leaving barely enough room for this reporter and his legal pad.
Gilde suggests they start with the three songs that use the Moog, so first up is “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” incorporating the first of many sound effects (hammer) Gilde will pull out as the evening progresses. “Because” follows, the song that Koontz said was the most challenging for him, but the practice has paid off. With his capo at the seventh fret, Levitt nails Harrison’s riffs on “Here Comes the Sun” and the band is off to the races.
“I Want You/She’s So Heavy” and “Come Together” are next followed by a stunning rendition of Harrison’s “Something,” again featuring note perfect solos from Levitt. The “chills down my spine” moment for me was next when the boys launched into “Oh Darling” with Koontz providing the soaring vocals, ably backed up by Hargreaves, Schiano and Gilde. Hargreaves takes the lead vocal on “Octopus’s Garden” (with bubbles by Gilde) and by this time I’m just singing along.
The richness of the material is evident as the band runs through “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polyethylene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” any of which, according to Levitt, could have been stand-alone songs on their own.
The absolute highlight of course is the “Golden Slumbers — Carry That Weight — The End” medley that has so many iconic riffs it’s hard to list them all. Gilde starts with luscious strings from the Nord, and by the time Giacone starts that eight-bar drum solo and Hargreaves, Schiano and Levitt are into the triple guitars on “The End,” I am just done.
What drives a band to work so hard for what amounts to maybe $.50 cents an hour?
“I’m a self-confessed lunatic” says Schiano. “We love what we do and the payoff is watching the crowd dance and stand with an ovation at the end. It’s hard to say who has more fun.”
Beatles Weekend! Let it Be and Abbey Road will be performed on Friday, March 15, and Saturday, March 16, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tickets can be purchased at the Bay Street Theater box office or by visiting baystreet.org.
Tom Hashagen is a member of the Tom & Lisa Band and the musical events producer for Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.