I enjoyed putting in the work preparing for the Knoxville Symphony Pops concert, featuring the Classical Mystery Tour’s 50th anniversary celebration of The Beatles’ groundbreaking album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
I enjoyed listening to my 50-year-old recording; enjoyed learning that the name Sgt. Pepper came from batting around what the S and P on salt and pepper shakers could be turned into, while on a flight back to the UK from Africa, where Paul McCartney had gone on holiday with the Beatles road manager Mal Evans.
The four lads had gotten tired of the screaming teenyboppers crowding their concerts. Maybe it was time to reinvent themselves. Wala! Up popped the S and P shakers and a new name for the band was born, at least temporarily. For a time, they thought Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might be their new disguise and they could get away with it if they dressed up in costumes.
Certainly, a new sound would emerge, with instruments way beyond three guitars, sometimes a piano, and drums.
I went to the concert wanting to hear the mellow French horn quartet in the signature “Sgt. Pepper” song that opens the album, to hear the heirloom crystal sound of the piccolo trumpet in “Penny Lane,” which they didn’t sing, the clarinet trio in “When I’m 64,” which they did sing, with Gary Sperl, playing first clarinet, Jorge Variago playing second and Tom Johnson playing the bass clarinet.
When Classical Mystery Tour’s four Beatle impersonators, Tyson Kelly, Tony Kishman, Joe Bithorn and Doug Cox, walked on stage dressed as the four lads of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it seemed more than a bit kitschy. Four guys in parrot costumes, much the same way KISS imitators slather themselves in white paste makeup, skin-tight black leather and platform shoes, hoping to fool an audience. But when the music started, the notion of a parody faded and that really great music took over. Mostly.
Without the orchestral sound shell to get the instrumental sound up and over the plastic enclosure around the band’s drummer that blocked the center of the stage, many of the lovely orchestral sounds, especially the strings, disappeared into a thick sound mud.
“With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Getting Better,” and “Fixing a Hole,” all had a droning sound underneath them that made a mess of the clear beauty of the orchestra instruments that characterize this wonderful music.
The most beautiful of the set was “She’s Leaving Home,” which had a simpler musical texture that didn’t include whatever microphones that created the sound sludge.
I’m sure the poignancy of “She’s Leaving Home” resonated with the mostly older audience in ways that wouldn’t have yet made sense to them when they first heard the song when they were young.
Modern technology has made some progress in the 50 years since Sgt. Pepper appeared. The song “Within You, Without You,” which originally featured George Harrison playing a sitar, produced the characteristic sitar sound with the lead electric guitar.
But, at the same time, at intermission, when I asked the Mystery Tour crew operating the sound board what was making the thick, dirty undertone that was covering up the beautiful sounds of the orchestra that are so important to Sgt. Pepper, they acknowledged it was happening, but didn’t know how to fix it because it was likely the fault of the crew who set up the microphones.
These kinds of finger pointing are not that uncommon between resident orchestras and hired touring pops groups that come in to play with them. It’s a shame. I heard KSO percussionist Bob Adamcik’s jaw pop in “Lovely Rita,” but Tyson Kelly’s piano solo was lost in the sound muck. The crisp, building crescendo in “A Day in the Life” didn’t have a cutting edge.
In the end, though, none of it seemed to matter to the full-house audience. They had come to reclaim memories and have fun. They sang along. A good time was had by all.