THE BOOTLEG BEATLES – BRIGHTON CENTRE 17.12.23
Do we really need to introduce a band like The Beatles at this point? They continue to be heralded as the most influential musical outfit of all-time, creating the template that western pop music would be based upon, from their early-60s rock ‘n’ roll sound to the multi-coloured and psychedelia-influenced material that would come to define their legacy. Certainly one of my all-time favourite groups to bless my teenage years with some truly stunning and remarkable songs: the four-songs-in-one progression of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, the spiralling ‘I Am The Walrus’ and the melancholic ‘She’s Leaving Home’, just to name a few. It’s safe to say The Beatles came out of the other side of the 60s with many musical disciples… and what else spawned from those disciples? Well, Beatles tribute bands, of course! From RAIN and 1964 The Tribute, to Beatlemania and The Fab Faux, there is certainly no shortage of re-imaginings, nostalgia trips and theatrical spectacles for the world’s biggest pop band. But, topping all of those aforementioned alliances is The Bootleg Beatles.
Formed in 1980, the year of John Lennon’s untimely death, the Bootleg Beatles was the tribute brainchild of Andre Barreau, David Catlin-Birch and Neil Harrison following their final West End show with the ‘Beatlemania’ Broadway revue. Finances were delegated towards equipment and costumes depicting the Fab Four and over the course of 40 or so years, the group went from a small cult fandom to worldwide pandemonium, with successes including European festival circuits, Glastonbury and even Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee! Following Andre Barreau’s final show with the Bootleg Beatles in 2014, there are currently no original members in this current incarnation, with Tyson Kelly, Steve White, Stephen Hill and Gordon Elsmore taking the titular roles of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Sunday night saw the band embark on their penultimate show for the year at the Brighton Centre, a venue I haven’t stepped foot in for quite some time now, having last watched Gorillaz there on their ‘Humanz’ tour in 2017. Myself and Brighton & Hove News Music Editor Nick Linazasoro were treated to central balcony seats, watching over the entire Centre with high hopes for the show.
As the lights dim to the sound of the infamous ‘Listen With Mother’ quote of “are you sitting comfortably?”, we are ready for a long and winding road down Beatle memory lane. A flashing video montage projected against the back screen of the stage, depicting a wide menagerie of early 1960s culture, events and individuals. Grainy drapes of James Bond, Martin Luther King’s speeches, Christine Keeler and the Profumo affair, and all things Carry On rotated against Manfred Mann’s ‘5-4-3-2-1’ before the lights suddenly flare up to reveal the Fab Four on the stage for the first chapter in Act One. The choice of introductory Beatles song though? ‘Love Me Do’? Nope. ‘From Me To You’? Uh-uh. Not even ‘She Loves You’? We got ‘It Won’t Be Long’, the opening track to ‘With The Beatles’, which is where, chronologically, the show opens up with… smart! Already, the similarities between The Bootlegs and The Beatles is uncanny, from Ringo’s unique drum style to Paul’s left-handed bass playing. The show is split up into five eras and this first one, set in 1963, documents the genesis of the band’s growth in Britain before heading elsewhere in the world. October 13th 1963, the date draped across the backdrop on paper tickets during ‘All My Loving’, signalled an important milestone in the public consciousness – the point where The Beatles were referred to as a global phenomenon. In addition to the closing song of this era, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, there are a couple deeper cuts interwoven which work well in maintaining that live feeling one could picture when watching The Bootleg Beatles, such as ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold Me’ and the respective George and Ringo-led numbers of ‘Devil In Her Heart’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’.
The band swiftly depart to modify their costumes as the screen plays footage of helicopters flying into the Shea Stadium, signalling the second era of the night. The Bootlegs, now donning smart cream jackets, kick off with the classic ‘Twist And Shout’, with John’s croaky vocals matching the original recording perfectly! I’ll admit, the earlier segments of The Beatles’ discography are not ones I come back to as frequently as the later eras, however, the performances of the seven tracks portraying their iconic 1965 show certainly revitalised my appreciation for tracks like ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘Act Naturally’. There’s even the method of interpolating audience screams and cheers from the Shea Stadium crowd with the live performances of The Bootleg Beatles which I think is an ingenious move for a show of this calibre! The audience are requested to be on their feet for the one-two punch of ‘Help!’ and ‘I’m Down’, the latter of which features the usage of a Farfisa organ, much to the chagrin of the projected image of a policeman with fingers in his ears…! Closing out this section of the show is Paul on the harpsichord, perched under a single spotlight for the track ‘For No One’. A fairly underrated McCartney song, this track definitely feels like a bridge between early Beatles and later Beatles, and is wonderfully arranged in this part of the performance.
1967! “Stand by for action!”, exclaims ‘Stingray’s Commander Shore, voiced by Ray Barrett, giving way to the opening video clip for the third and final era of Act One, which features an array of clips from Michael Caine’s ‘Alfie’, the Milky Bar Kid and Batman, underneath music of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’. To my surprise, the stage is now adorned by a nine-piece orchestra and The Bootlegs in the iconic Sgt. Pepper attire (the colouring may not be exactly spot-on to my eyes, but still deliciously co-ordinated nonetheless). Of course, we are hit with the opening three tracks from ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, with ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ in particular re-awakening my deep-seeded love for the album with its classic melody gracing my ears. Of course, there’s ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, a top five Beatles song for me, backed with the biggest crowd singalong of the night thus far. The overall sound of this track is replicated perfectly, from John’s high-end vocal formant right down to the droning tambura sample in the background. The Bootlegs break the fourth wall somewhat to dedicate the following song to a fan in the crowd turning 60… of course, that song is ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, a track that, yes, sticks out on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ like a sore thumb, but one of the sweetest sore thumbs you could ever hope to have. Here, the song is arranged with Ringo’s brushed snare patterns, and a beautiful display of flutes and various woodwinds, with the odd mallet ringing here and there through the song. Even the dense, but utterly iconic ‘A Day In The Life’ is a joyous moment of marvel, with lights falling away from the band members and focussing on the orchestra for the dissonant string sections. Despite the slight technical stumble on the final chord’s playback, Act One ends wonderfully, with the four Bootlegs standing around the Sgt. Pepper drum head has the lights fade to black.
A very quick twenty-five minutes go past and we are back in business for Act Two, with a montage of clips signalling the era of 1968 Beatles, from ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown to giant panda Chi Chi and John Cleese’s iconic “And now for something completely different”. In a complete theatrical shift from the vivacious colours of ‘Sgt. Pepper’, the more urban and gritty ‘Helter Skelter’ opens the show up again; while it may not be a favourite Beatles song of mine, the energy of the track cannot be understated here. “This is a bit of good old-fashioned boogie-woogie”, says Paul as they head into ‘Lady Madonna’, backed with horn sections in a jamboree of all kinds. ‘Revolution’, a song I admittedly learned about from hearing Rik Mayall sing it in the ‘Bomb’ episode of The Young Ones features a wonderful flourishing electric piano solo from the fifth Bootleg Beatle, Max Langley, a regular contributor to the tribute shows in various instrumental capacities. Following another quick announcement to celebrate numerous anniversaries and birthdays for some of the audience members, we reach the polarising ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, a McCartney song notorious for Lennon detesting. However, here, it seems to be one of the most enthralling moments of the set, with many crowd participants on their feet and singing back to the Bootlegs. After the marvellously-arranged and harmonically satisfying performance of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the final track of the 1968 era, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ breaks the fourth wall entirely as George Harrison’s Bootleg counterpart Stephen Hill takes a moment to cherish the memory of the original Bootleg George, Andre Barreau. This performance is the biggest deviation from a Beatles song in the whole set, with acoustic guitar and string arrangements serenading the Centre into a luscious aura.
The final era of The Beatles: 1969. A year of ‘Carry On Camping’, ‘The Italian Job’, Alf Garnett and Apollo 11 among others on the screen, before cutting to a clip of the Fab Four strolling across Abbey Road. With two “RECORDING” signs flanking either side of the stage, the four members are now all sat down on the stage, journeying through ‘Come Together’ with class and precision from the towels placed on Ringo’s drums to the homage paid to their ‘Abbey Road’ attire. The golden George favourite ‘Something’, features some warm soundplay among the string arrangement, never overpowering his voice, nor the rest of the band. Following the groovy and iconic ‘Get Back’, which starts to see more people in the balcony rows dancing along, comes an interesting choice of song: ‘Old Brown Shoe’. Gloriously brought to life by The Bootleg Beatles here, this track has often been regarded as an obscurity in the Beatles’ catalogue, overshadowed by its B-side, and subsequent track in the performance, ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ (cue dialogues of disgruntlement between George and Paul as John talks about Yoko prior to the song). Following a quick Paul McCartney & Wings joke when asking for cheers from the cordoned-off balcony wings, we come to ‘Here Comes The Sun’, a song that never fails to put a smile on my face whenever I hear it. The flute and string arrangements in the background of the performance are executed perfectly and the rhythmically complex bridge is handled masterfully by everyone involved.
Of course, the final song of the main set has to be ‘Hey Jude’, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Now, fun fact, there have been many explorations into the song’s original recording where an f-bomb can be heard before the song’s repeating refrain section, which is amazingly replicated by Bootleg George in the exact same spot! A very quick encore break leads to the band coming back on for what comes to be a truly remarkable experience; a live rendition of The Beatles’ last song, ‘Now And Then’. I must say, the overall sound for this performance is arguably a better effort than the eventual mix that appeared on its definite release, with gorgeous washes of violins and slide guitar from George, with John leading the song through against a star-studded backdrop. Suitably, the final song of the entire night, ‘The End’ caps the show off perfectly, with the iconic opening drum fill as well as John’s jaunt to the piano for the final leg of the song with the final lyric laid across the screen: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. When being given the opportunities to attend and review shows for Brighton and Hove News, I (snobbishly) always turn down any offers for tribute shows because I’ll always end up comparing them to the original no matter how much replication, imagination and originality goes into them. However, even taking into account the lack of many more Beatles songs that had the opportunity to be played, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Penny Lane’, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Back In The USSR’, ‘Love Me Do’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Yellow Submarine’, ‘Let It Be’, just to name a fair few, The Bootleg Beatles have achieved an outstanding feat, blowing away any expectations or prior reservations I had going in. This is an outfit that has dedicated so much time, effort and credibility towards one of the most innovative musical groups of our generation, and I commend them for making what is possibly my last gig of the year an immensely satisfying one!
The Bootleg Beatles:
Tyson Kelly (John Lennon) – vocals, guitar, keys
Steve White (Paul McCartney) – vocals, bass, keys
Stephen Hill (George Harrison) – guitar, vocals
Gordon Elsmore (Ringo Starr) – drums, vocals
Max Langley – keyboards, percussion
Matt Grocutt – trumpet, piccolo trumpet, percussion
Vanessa King – French horn, flute, vocals, percussion
Harriet Baker – flute, saxophone
Chris Cole – trombone
Tom Bott – violin
Sarah Chapman – viola
Sheila Holdsworth – viola
Robert Woollard – cello
The Bootleg Beatles setlist:
‘It Won’t Be Long’
‘All My Loving’
‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’
‘I Wanna Be Your Man’
‘Devil In Her Heart’
‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’
Shea Stadium 1965:
‘Twist And Shout’
‘She’s A Woman’
‘I Feel Fine’
‘For No One’
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
‘With A Little Help From My Friends’
‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’
‘When I’m Sixty-Four’
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’
‘A Day In The Life’
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
‘Old Brown Shoe’
‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’
‘Here Comes The Sun’
‘Now And Then’