NEW YORK — It was an evening straight out of Lincoln Center, with bravos for the harpist and a standing ovation for the trumpet solo. But this was no black-tie event.
This was a rock show, the setting was the hardscrabble Beacon Theatre, and the music was the latter-day material of the Beatles — complex songs the band never played in concert — performed in a manner so close to the original studio recordings as to be almost unnerving.
This take on what the Beatles might have sounded like had they performed such intricate songs as “A Day in the Life,” “The End,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and other work from 1966-70 on the road is the singular mission of the Fab Faux — a genial and mostly graying pickup band of elite Manhattan musicians, including two moonlighting members of late-night TV talk show bands. And, after nearly 10 years together, find themselves in the midst of a surprising leap from club fringe to center stage.
From the echoed mumbling in “I Am the Walrus” to the firehouse bell and opulent horns of “Penny Lane,” it seems that not a single detail escapes the Faux.
“We spend so much time at rehearsal just sitting in a circle listening to nuances,” drummer Rich Pagano says. “I don’t know any other band that does things the way we do.”
Long known among the Beatles faithful, the Faux got a considerable profile lift from a pair of stirring performances earlier this year — first on “Late Show With David Letterman,” then during a visit to Howard Stern at Sirius Satellite Radio. When tickets to a recent Beacon concert (the band’s first in a major theater) flew from the boxoffice, promoters scrambled to take this extreme tribute to the bank full time.
“But that would ruin it, don’t you think?” says the Faux’s Jimmy Vivino, who is best known for his regular gig as lead guitarist and arranger for the Max Weinberg 7 on NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
Not that the band could tour, even if it wanted to. The Faux’s bassist is Will Lee, who has played in David Letterman’s band since his late-night show began in 1982. In fact, all five members — also including Frank Agnello on guitar/sound effects and Jack Petruzzelli on keyboard, guitar and percussion — play in other bands and continually work in the studio with leading artists.
While a weeknight job in television can be limiting, no one’s complaining. On Saturday, the Faux is squeezing in two sold-out shows at the Keswick Theatre near Philadelphia — performing 1966’s “Revolver” album at 4 p.m. and 1969’s “Abbey Road” at 8. Amid a slew of shows through the holidays will be a presentation of “Sgt. Pepper,” start to finish, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston next month. An L.A. show is set for January at the Avalon in Hollywood.
“Most of the time, we’re stuck in New York, which could have been the thing that killed us if we hadn’t been any good,” Lee says. “But now I think it adds to our desirability. It’s not that we want to say no — we love playing. So we kind of do a world tour of one particular town every Saturday night.”
That they “love” it understates the obvious. All are self-professed, lifelong Beatles geeks. Their devotion is clear during costly, laborious sound checks and setups that sometimes stretch five hours or more and even include placing specific brands of microphones and speakers just as John Lennon reportedly did decades ago.
“We do torture ourselves over the details because it’s so worth it,” Lee says. “But when you look at the Beatles’ body of work and how quickly it all happened and how it impacted basically all of pop music, it deserves a lot thought. They bent all the rules.”
Clearly there is — and probably always will be — limitless profit potential in the music of the Beatles and other iconic acts with substantive, versatile catalogs. But while the rapidly expanding “tribute” sector of the music business has become increasingly profitable and worthy of greater respect (a rare bright spot for today’s music industry), the Fab Faux is not part of that movement.
The hundreds of working Beatles acts, with such names as Ticket to Ride, Come Together, Rain and the Fab Four — as well as bands including the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Floydian Slip, Led Zepplica, Freebird, Fan Halen and others — concentrate on pop radio hits, wigs and costumes.
Members of the Fab Faux do not dress up, mimic a particular musician or stress the visual in any way. All five trade off on vocals, various instruments and live effects — whatever’s called for aurally to create the whole sound.
Although in some shows they do include the early pop hits favored by typical Beatles tribute acts, the Faux’s primary goal is to decipher what went on in the studio when a somewhat disillusioned Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr decided to stop touring and record whatever came to mind — no matter how avant-garde, silly or strange.
“What the Fab Faux has figured out is how to play songs that were never designed to be played live,” says veteran music journalist David Fricke, senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine. “Everyone knows they could be touring this thing to death if they wanted to. It could be a license to print money. I don’t know any Beatles band that has ever attempted to play ‘Revolution 9’ live. It’s just too hard.”
Accomplishing all this has its price. The harp, strings and horn sections that must be onstage for such songs as “She’s Leaving Home,” “Across the Universe,” “Penny Lane” and many others typically bring the Faux to 11 pieces for most shows. The tab for lengthy rehearsals, sound technicians, extensive setups and a schedule that doesn’t allow for the economy of consecutive shows isn’t supplemented by a record label, promoter or sponsor.
While the band is now well-known enough to receive top billing at the annual Beatle Week in Liverpool for the past several summers and also does well with lucrative private corporate gigs, its members say that even if that were not the case, they would not consider doing business less expensively.
“On ‘Penny Lane,’ for example, you will never see a guy playing a synthesizer to emulate the piccolo trumpet solo,” Lee says. “You’ll see a guy playing a piccolo trumpet.”
Band members say they’re always augmenting their Beatles knowledge — continually scouring used record shops and the Internet for rare takes and other clues to the past.
Says Pagano: “I’ve found imports where just one fader is up on the ‘White Album’ and it’s just John’s guitar part, and I’ll bring it to Jimmy and say, ‘Listen to what he’s doing here — listen to the tone on his amp!”
A little obsessive? Perhaps — but Vivino says they have it in perspective.
“I’ve heard that Yoko appreciates what we do,” he says of Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono. But though he’s met McCartney and Starr, he’s never mentioned his side band. “I just don’t think I could walk up to either of them and say ‘Hey, by the way …’ That puts you into that strange stalker place, and we don’t want to go there.”