Sitting on a Cornflake, Waiting on the Band to Come

The Fab Faux played  Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC on Saturday, May 22nd.  Their next scheduled appearance is at The Count Basie Theatre in Redbank NJ on June 26, 2010.  Check their site for more dates and additional information.

“Beatles Tribute Band” doesn’t really do justice to the performances of the Fab Faux. From what I had seen and heard before the show, it was obvious this was not your typical tribute band. First: no wigs, no Black Oyster Pearl Ludwig drum kit, and they’re not even all that cute.  (OK, Jack’s kinda cute and Will has a mop-top).

Second, they sing in their own voices — no phony accents, no vocal mimicry, just straight-ahead interpretations of the lead vocals with transcendent harmonies.

Third, and most important, the music. Except for Paul McCartney’s band, you have never heard (and never will hear) a group that can play the music of the Beatles like the Fab Faux can. Unless you heard The Beatles, and if you did — you didn’t hear them play most of these songs.

The Faux repertoire leans heavily towards the Beatles later material, recorded after they stopped touring in 1966. This period starts with Sgt. Pepper’s and ends with Abbey Road, and naturally contains their most ambitious works. Had the fans stopped screaming and the Beatles kept playing, I’m not sure even they could pull off the instrumental portion of this catalog as well as the Fab Faux.

So we have a group of seriously talented musicians painstakingly performing some of the most respected and demanding works of popular music. Add in the Creme Tangerine Strings and Hogs Head Horns, and you end up with something closer to a modern chamber orchestra than a tribute band.

It’s no accident that the Beatles are one of the few rock bands to have their recordings transcribed into complete scores. Just as a classical chamber orchestra interprets the compositions of past masters and contemporary composers, the Fab Faux take some of the Beatles most complex works and create note-perfect and moving performances.

I honestly thought I had come up with a fresh angle on the group. Then I read David Fricke’s description of how the Fab Faux were originally conceived.

One day in early 1998, Jimmy Vivino, guitarist and arranger for the Max Weinberg 7, the house band on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, ran into his neighbor Will Lee, bassist for Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra on Late Show With David Letterman, in the elevator of their Manhattan apartment building. “We were going to our shows,” Vivino says, “and Will goes, ‘Hey, I’m starting a Beatles cover band.’ The first thing I said was ‘Why? There are plenty of Beatles tribute bands out there.’”

“Then I realized he was serious,” Vivino recalls. “He said, ‘I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the way classical musicians start a chamber orchestra to play Mozart. I’m talking about playing the Beatles’ songs and records live, as perfectly as we can.’ I said, ‘Without the wigs?’” Lee’s reply was quick: “Sure.”

~ David Fricke, Rollling Stone

“We’re the Fab Faux from New York city, and we’re going to play some Beatles for you tonight.

‘Cause that’s really all we know how to play…”  Will Lee introduced the group after opening with popping renditions of “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.”  Then the strings and horns left the stage and the five Faux brought out “And Your Bird Can Sing,” followed by “Paperback Writer,” which ended with the first extended jam of the night.

The entire group reassembled for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which was one of the evening’s highlights.  Will Lee started the song on bass, moved over to keyboards, then ran behind the drum riser and jumped up to end it by pounding on the floor tom as part of a double-drum solo.

Afterwards, Will explained that there’s a recording where John Lennon joins Ringo and can be heard coaching him: “All right, calm down Ringo, calm down.”  This was one of several bits of Beatles education sprinkled throughout the night.

Will Lee was definitely the most animated member of the group, although the stage crew provided plenty of movement as they ushered in and out a flotilla of acoustic, electric, and bass guitars.  The players were constantly tweaking their setups “because we care about the music.”

Founding member Jimmy Vivino was absent, as he is currently leading the band for Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.”  Jim Boggia filled in for Vivino, with Jack Petruzzelli picking up some of Jimmy’s guitar solos.   Guitarist Frank Agnello and drummer Rich Pagano fill out the remaining sides of the fab five pentagon.

All of the players are talented vocalists as well as multi-instrumentalists, although some are more vocal and multi-instrumental than others.  Petruzzelli and Boggia in particular displayed impressive versatility as they switched between the keyboard, guitar, and percussion setups that flanked each side of the stage.

Without any obvious John, Paul, or George impersonators (and a noticeable lack of Ringo-crooned tunes), it was hard to keep track of the lead vocal assignments.  It did seem that Lee contributed mainly on harmonies, and Pagano handled more than his share of the lead vocal duties.  And handled them very well.

Drumming for the Fab Faux

Fab Faux Drums

Breaking Down Pagano's Fab Faux kits: Early (left) and Late (right) (click to enlarge)

I spoke with Rich Pagano about his two-kit setup after the show. He uses the early kit for most songs released before 1967.  It’s a four-piece GMS set that is tuned higher and has a more open sound than the late kit.

The late kit is a five-piece set of SJC Custom Drums.  The cymbals are darker and the drums are tuned lower and taped to give the muffled “tub” sound heard on the later Beatles recordings.

It’s Getting Very Near the End

The first time Rich moved to the late kit was to play “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  He stayed there for “Something”, then moved back to the early kit for some early hits including “I Feel Fine” and “8 Days a Week.”  The first standing ovation of the night was earned by the piccolo trumpet solo on “Penny Lane,” and the first set ended with a driving version of “I am the Walrus.”

The second set was not as strong or as tight as the first, but got off to a good start with “Hello Goodbye” and “Back in the USSR.”   Highlights included Boggia’s Fender Rhodes solo on “Get Back,” and Petruzzelli’s guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which brought out the night’s second standing O.

Fab Faux: After the Show

Fab Faux drummer and vocalist Rich Pagano with former New Yorker, DC television personality and all around nice guy Tony Perkins after the show.

Before leaving the stage, they played, you guessed it,  “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and “A Day in the Life.”  Both were well done, although the final chord of Day in the Life, which for my money has the best ending in the recorded history of rock and roll, could have benefited from a stronger accent and longer sustain.  [BTW – Best Beginning: “Money for Nothing” from Dire Straits.]

Of course, any further sustain would probably have been lost in the noise of the audience clamoring for an encore.  Which the Fab Faux delivered admirably with “All You Need is Love.”  And in the end, I counted about 27 songs over more than 2 full hours of music.

Since two of the Fab Faux principals have well-known night jobs, and all of them perform with other groups, the band does not get out to play that often.  If you missed them in DC, it’s certainly worth a trip to NY or NJ to catch a show.  Until then, check out Abbey Road Side 2 (mostly) from vimeo below the drums.

Buy Ringo’s Drums!
Ludwig Legacy Classic Liverpool 4 4-Piece Shell Pack

Buy the drumsticks Rich uses on the Early Kit!
Vic Firth American Classic Drumsticks with Vic Grip 5A Wood
Buy the drumsticks Rich uses with the Late Kit!
Vic Firth American Classic Hickory 5A Sticks, Buy 3 Get 1 Pair 55A Free

The Fab Faux – Abbey Road Side 2 (mostly) from The Fab Faux on Vimeo.