The seven-member White Album Ensemble brings a Beatles masterpiece to life.
Thursday, June 3, 2004
In 1968, The Beatles released a sprawling, unhinged 30-song double album that became known as the White Album. The White Album proved that records did not have to be coherent, unified musical statements and paved the way for sprawling masterpieces like The Clash’s London Calling , Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti and, even, Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below .
Listening to the White Album reveals a record of startling versatility from highly produced numbers, like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and Monkey” and “Savoy Truffle” to stripped-down tunes like “Blackbird” and “Julia.” After the sunny McCartney-penned sing-along “Birthday” comes “Yer Blues,” which features starkly bleak lyrics like “I’m so lonely, want to die.” And following the abrasive rocker “Helter Skelter” is the incredibly soft—turn your stereo up—Harrison gem “Long, Long, Long.”
It was this versatility that helped spur guitar maker/guitar repairman Rick McKee to try and assemble a group of Monterey Bay-area musicians to play the whole White Album in its entirety live, a feat that The Beatles themselves had never done, since they stopped touring before the album was completed.
For three nights a week over a five-month period, a group of local and regional musicians including former members of the Doobie Brothers and legendary Santa Cruz rock group Snail practiced for a two-day run at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theater last May.
Dale Ockerman, who plays keyboards, guitar, harmonica and sings in the group known as The White Album Ensemble, says that he and the other seven musicians involved in the project spent months researching The Beatles’ recording of the White Album .
Ockerman tells me the Beatles used an oscillator to create the guitar sound on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He says that the lyrics of “Savoy Truffle” are simply a list of the contents inside a box of chocolates. He notes how The Beatles‘ worldview changed from optimistic (“Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son”) to more cynical (“Piggies,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun”) over the course of recording the album.
“We just tripped out on the details,” Ockerman says. “We were looking at it like an archaeological dig. ‘How the hell did they do this,’ you know?”
Even though some songs are extremely difficult to perform, Ockerman says the ensemble’s renditions keep the spirit of the originals alive. “If you like the song, you will like the way we do it,” he assures this Beatles fan.
Ockerman admits that one song in particular was pretty difficult to do. “‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ is pretty challenging, with its weird time signatures,” he says.
Despite being very excited about playing the piano part on “Martha My Dear,” Ockerman says that “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” is his favorite track from the record.
“I don’t know what [John Lennon] is talking about, but it sure is cool,” Ockerman says. “It has a sense of humor and a cosmic world view.”
Apparently, the White Album Ensemble’s attention to detail and practice paid off on opening night last year. Ockerman says he could see from the stage that the show was going real well.
“We could just tell how good it sounded and how much people dug it,” he says.
The Santa Cruz press really dug it. The Santa Cruz Sentinel called the performance “the best local concert in years, “ and Adam Cotton of Metro Santa Cruz wrote “I was utterly blown away.”
Since the initial sold-out, two-day run at the Rio, the
ensemble has played the White Album at four more
Now, the group is moving on to other Beatles albums. In mid May, the ensemble debuted The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver albums in a show they call Rubber Revolver. (The Ensemble will bring the Rubber Revolver show to the Sunset Center on September 25.) The guys are also starting work on a show featuring the songs from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour to be called Sgt. Pepper’s Mystery Tour.
If possible, Ockerman says he would not be opposed to taking the show to other areas under the right circumstances. He says that the group, which also features dancers as part of a multimedia performance during “Revolution 9,” would probably turn down gigs at bar mitzvahs and barbecues.
“We are not background music,” he says. “We are an act.”
The White Album Ensemble plays the whole White Album at the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th in Carmel, on Saturday at 7:30pm. $25-35. 479-9421.