The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, but the demand for their music has waned little. Filling this gap in the market since the early 1980s has been The Bootleg Beatles, one of the earliest tribute acts and, on the strength of last night’s show at Auckland’s ASB Theatre, one of the most authentic.
It’s a highly engaging show, a faithful reproduction of the Beatles experience, starting with the Cavern Club years, and the four “Beatles” — Adam Hastings as John Lennon, Steve White playing Paul McCartney, the roll of George Harrison taken by Stephen Hill, and Gordon Elsmore on drums — in black polo-necks. The visuals are spot-on, from “Paul”‘s left-handed Hohner bass to “George” holding his guitar somewhere up under his nipples. And then there’s the sound — as the band trot through a greatest-hits-and-then-a-few-others set that proceeds chronologically through the real Beatles’ career, songs from She Loves You to Lady Madonna are quite astonishingly authentically reproduced. Hastings has Lennon’s nasal whine, while Elsmore, on the couple of occasions that he speaks, nails Ringo’s lumpen drone.
We’ll never, of course, see the Beatles play their classics again; but then, nobody ever saw them play much of their later catalogue. Everything from Revolver onward came after they stopped performing live, and so while the Bootleg Beatles can draw on film footage like the scenes playing out on the video projector above the screen as they changed costumes, from Shay Stadium-era beige Nehru jackets to hideous but utterly authentic psychedelic suits for Sergeant Pepper, to inform their performances, and watching “Paul” and “George” lean into a microphone stand is almost, but not quite, like seeing video of the original band. But you’ll be harder pressed to find film of the Beatles playing, say, Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!, and perhaps there’s a reason for that. Much of the Pepper-ere material was very much studio music, and might perhaps have benefited from staying there, and after the interval, as the Bootleg Beatles played a clutch of mid-period experimental pieces, the set dragged, before being picked back up again with a storming close-out of Get Back and Revolution and Lady Madonna, but, curiously, not Let It Be.
The Beatles’ canon contains, obviously, some of the most famous songs in modern music history; it’s all but impossible to fail to sing along to the na-na-nas of Hey Jude, for example. But the best music in the world still needs skilled musicians to do it justice, and the Bootleg Beatles are, all four, clearly highly accomplished players. The band has been a revolving door of musicians since it formed in 1980, and the four current members are all relative newcomers, their youth providing both an energy to the performance and an air of authenticity to a show that is, at its heart, a remarkable piece of mimicry. Gordon Elsmore leans over his kit with a look of supreme boredom and detachment while providing the subtle fills that some claim made Ringo Starr a hugely underrated drummer and not the luckiest musician in living memory (the jury, some claim, is still out on that one; they’re wrong, of course, and the truth is that Ringo was, indeed, not even the best drummer in the Beatles), while Steve White as McCartney bobs and dad-dances like he’s composing Mull Of Kintyre in his head. And they play the show entirely in character, addressing each other in Scouse accents and by their Beatle names, “Paul” even telling “George” to “come ‘ead” at one point, while “John” teases “Paul” about forming Wings and “Paul,” in turn, grimaces whenever Yoko One is mentioned. Even Jeff Moore, after playing keys on Get Back, is introduced as Billy Preston — the attention to detail is outstanding.
The Clash, then, were wrong. Phoney Beatlemania clearly hasn’t bitten the dust. It might have calmed down over the last fifty years, but on the strength of last night’s showing, it’s still going strong. I have a funny feeling that, even with Paul McCartney himself coming to Auckland next month, this is as good a rendition of Beatles songs as you’ll hear all year in New Zealand.