8 Oct 2001: Bowery Ballroom New York
Seek a gear show for those in the know? Go hear Fab Faux!
One of my few regrets in life is not having attended a live Beatles concert. I missed out, plain and simple, and have spent the better part of my adult life accepting that fate in muted defiance. To this day, I can’t attend a Mets game at Shea Stadium without imagining the four lads from Liverpool on the infield stage, singing out over the deafening roar of an adoring public. But, aside from the unlikely invention of a bug-free time machine, my wish has been reduced to attending the occasional Beatles memorabilia fest, and awaiting the concert portion with whatever rent-a-Beatles tribute band is hired for the occasion. Some of these are better than others, and many of them achieve a passable justice in covering much of the repertoire, particularly the early-era Beatles. For a long time, I thought this was the best I could hope for.
Then one day someone enlightened me about the musical secret known as The Fab Faux. The inside skinny was this: five talented studio guys, musician’s musicians, had formed the ultimate Beatles tribute band and you had to hear them to believe them. As a New Yorker, I was skeptical. Sure, I’d heard a lot of good bands before—so I was eager to see how these guys stacked up. For emotional support and shared experience, I took my wife along (she who tolerates my musical obsessions). For historical accuracy and an expert opinion, I also went with my friend Bob, a certified Beatle-maniac.
Before the show began, we did our usual schtick: trading obscure lines of dialogue from Beatles’ films and trying to guess what the opening tune would be. Needless to say, we were wrong in our picks. These guys surprise you, both in their choice of music and in their flawless performance of it. Long story short: we were blown away. Did one ever expect to hear “Savoy Truffle” performed note-for-note with a horn section accompaniment? That’s my point.
This wasn’t just the easy stuff; some of these were songs the Beatles themselves never performed live. So even if you were lucky enough to see the Beatles live, this was something different—the equivalent of the later Beatles concert that never was. I heard others in the crowd talking about their first Fab Faux concert, how they were wowed and won over. Like these others, I resolved on the spot to become a regular at The Fab Faux’s future concerts.
So today it is with a certain reluctance that I spread the good word of their music to you, specifically reporting on a concert Monday night at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. Part of me knows the more of you that come to see them next time around, the more crowded it will be and the less likely the chance for me to get a ticket. But my journalistic integrity overrides my selfishness and compels me to tell you the whole musical truth.
The five members of The Fab Faux all are working musicians with busy schedules. As a result, the few times a year that they perform in public truly are special occasions. In Spring, 1998, the group was formed by Late Night’s own bass player extraordinaire Will Lee along with musician/producer Rich Pagano, out of a general lifelong love and respect for this musical legacy. “The Beatles gave us all a wakeup call,” says Lee.
So who are The Fab Faux? In concert, Will Lee says “We’re mostly Virgos, mostly Italians and mostly from New Jersey.” In truth, there’s more to it than that, so let me introduce the five of The Faux.
Will Lee’s extensive musical history alone could take pages to accurately convey. Probably best known for his work as bassist for Dave Letterman’s The Late Show this past decade and a half, Will Lee has contributed his many talents to others as well. His studio efforts amount to over a thousand credits on pop, jazz and rock albums. Here are just a few sample names: Ricky Martin, Burt Bacharach, the Bee Gees, George Benson, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Mick Jagger, Cyndi Lauper, Barry Manilow, Miami Sound Machine, Buddy Rich, Bette Midler, Liza Minelli, Diana Ross, Grover Washington Jr., Cat Stevens, Vanessa Williams, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Kool & the Gang, Billy Joel, Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon, D’Angelo, Frank Sinatra, Mariah Carey, Pat Metheny, and Steely Dan. Will Lee also has sung and played on an equally impressive number of TV and radio commercials and has performed live with countless artists, including three different Beatles. To get an even better idea of the whirlwind activity surrounding Will Lee, visit his site at www.willlee.com.
Next in this impressive lineup is Jimmy Vivino, best known as guitarist/arranger for the Max Weinberg Seven on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (he actually leads the group when Max is out touring with Springsteen). Jimmy V. plays and writes for a number of diverse projects, including Al Kooper’s ReKooperators, Levon Helm, Phoebe Snow and the most recent Odetta release. Jimmy V. has established a fine reputation in the blues community as well, having produced recent CDs from Johnny Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Son Seals and Shemekia Copeland. Vivino also has made inroads into gospel, having arranged horns and strings for the past two Cissy Houston albums.
No Fab Faux concert is complete without a question sent out to the audience from guitarist/vocalist Frank Agnello. Frank A., the acknowledged Beatles trivia expert of the group, is an accomplished songwriter as well. In addition to his own music, Agnello has produced several projects from his home studio, including developing artists and TV commercials. He toured as a guitarist for a European production of the musical Hair and will be performing in the upcoming “The Beat Goes On” series: “The Brill Building Years” at The Bottom Line.
One reason this group succeeds at re-creating the more difficult songs and arrangements accurately is due to the multi-instrumental talents of Jimmy Vivino and Jack Petruzelli. Like Vivino, Petruzelli is adept on keyboards as well as on guitars. The extremely busy Jack P. is a member of the Joan Osbourne Band, playing lead guitar and keyboards. His performances and songwriting are featured on her current release. In addition, he has worked with Vannessa Paradis and Curt Smith, and most recently toured with Rufus Wainwright.
Rounding out this busy and talented quintet is co-founder Rich Pagano. When not drumming for The Fab Faux, Rich P. is kept busy running his production studio New Calcutta Recordings NYC and developing new talent. His co-production and performing on the latest Willie Nile release, Beautiful Wreck of the World, earned him Top 10 Album of the Year honors in both Billboard magazine and The Village Voice. He probably is best known for the group Marry Me Jane and has also recorded or performed with Robbie Robertson, Freedy Johnston, Joan Osbourne and Mott the Hoople legend Ian Hunter.
Each of the five members provides strong lead vocals, allowing for accurate part-perfect renditions of such harmony-driven songs as “Because”, “Nowhere Man”, “This Boy”, and “Paperback Writer”, and allowing double-tracked vocals as well. What sets this group apart from the others is the way they take on the most complex of The Beatles’ later studio material and manage to reproduce it live. However, they also cover a healthy amount of the earlier songs as well, capturing every little magical nuance. The typical Fab Faux concert involves two sets that add up to some 40 tunes, and this show was no exception.
On a chilly October Monday, with the burning smell of tragedy still in the night air, I’m happy to report that the venue sold out. The Bowery Ballroom stage was set with nothing but a large American flag hanging on the back wall behind the band’s equipment. Additional security outside the club checked photo IDs before allowing entry. And in truth, the events of September 11th had led to a second night’s show being cancelled (the CMJ New Music Marathon’s many events having been postponed a month and rescheduled now). But the somber feelings were put aside for a few hours, as people united at this public occasion to let the music soothe and heal, much the way they have all over NYC.
Once again, ex-Lennon mistress May Pang handled introduction duties for The Fab Faux. For those unfamiliar with that “Lost Weekend” period, it was when John moved out to Los Angeles to be with May. When John and Yoko decided to separate in 1973, Yoko hand-picked personal production assistant Pang as John’s ideal “companion”. According to Pang, she was asked by Yoko to “be with John and to help him out and see to it that he gets whatever he wants.” Pang said that “If John was still around, this is the band he would want with him” and I believe it.
Since this show was going past midnight into the Lennon birthdate of October 9th, the Fab Faux focus primarily was on the music of John. For the first time ever, the band was going to venture outside the realm of Beatles music into a special tribute set of John’s solo songs as well. At about 9:20 p.m., the show got underway with an impressively accurate rendition of “Glass Onion”, right up to the winding down bass and cello at song’s end. The first set enlisted the help of cellist Sibel Finn, who did an incredible job on such numbers as “Eleanor Rigby”, “I Am the Walrus”, “She Said She Said”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Across the Universe”.
There was a decidedly Lennon influence to the song selection, with “John” songs comprising 11 of the first set’s 17 tunes. While every song was faithfully and impressively reproduced, first set highlights (in addition to those mentioned) included the short but fulfilling “And Your Bird Can Sing”, an amazing live version of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Taxman”, “Lady Madonna” and the truly rocking “Helter Skelter”.
Joining the band for songs like “Got to Get You into My Life” and “Penny Lane” were the Hogshead Horns, featuring Lew Soloff on trumpet, Ed Manion on sax/flute, Tom “Bones” Malone on trombone/sax/trumpet/flute and Jerry Vivino on sax/flute. Blood, Sweat & Tears alumnus Soloff nailed the solo on “Penny Lane” and the horns overall did a superb job of capturing the subtle shades necessary on each song.
Part of the fun of attending the show is watching the group perform. The five talented members are friends, and the mutual respect is evident. The instruments also are “to die for”. While Lee trades off between a Hofner bass and a Rickenbacker, Frank and Jimmy have a virtual parade of guitars that are as fun to see as to hear. These guys enjoy what they play, the craftsmanship of hitting each note exactly, and it shows. The slips, if any, are few and far between, and only the most exacting of Beatle fans might even take notice. During the concert, Will Lee confessed that they do this as an act of love, and constantly asked the audience “Who has more fun than us?” with the response being an enthusiastic “Nobody!”
After opening the second set with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, Fab Faux launched into their six-song Lennon mini-tribute with “Instant Karma”. Highlights here included Will Lee singing his favorite Lennon tune “Jealous Guy”, Frank singing “How”, Rich singing “Gimme Some Truth” and a fantastic “Imagine” (the words never seemed more apropos than now) and Jimmy lending his vocals to the surprising “What You Got”. Jack, whose specialty seems to be Paul covers, had the best vocal performance of the night though with his incredible “Oh! Darling”.
The “Fab Faux Not War” T-shirts that had been created long ago now seemed to convey a prescient message. In a way that seemed even better than that other Lennon tribute, these words and music seemed timeless and important. The crowd, predominantly men aged 35-55, but featuring many younger Beatles fans as well, often swayed back and forth, dancing and singing along with these tunes. One can’t help but sing along; these songs are so much a part of our culture and us, they exist in our blood. I watched the smiles of the crowd and it made me feel good again—a tribute not only to the Beatles, but to the triumph of human spirit itself.
On stage there were other smiles—promises of an original Fab Faux CD to come “if only they can write good songs—having been spoiled by the Beatles catalog” and the sheer enjoyment of the music. Other banter highlights included the story of Late Show staffer Kenny Sheehan who had volunteered selflessly at the Ground Zero site, and the true story that an audience member actually proposed marriage during the group’s playing of a requested song (“Got to Get You into My Life” appropriately—and by the way, she said yes.)
Second set and encore highlights included: “Help!”, “Drive My Car”, “Yer Blues”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Revolution”, “Let It Be”, and the rousing medley “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”, which featured a flawless re-creation of Ringo’s solo by Rich, the trading off of leads between Jack, Jimmy and Frank and yes, even the requisite “Her Majesty” 24 seconds afterwards.
At show’s end, all agreed it had been a fun and special night, and the good news is that the group intends to be back at The Bowery Ballroom for two shows in December (allegedly covering The White Album in its entirety for a special holiday treat). I urge you all to check out this very special concert—only please leave a ticket for me!
// Notes from the Road
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