Beatlefest 2019 is in the bag 8/6 '19
(I wrote this on Sunday, 8/4. It's really long. There's a TL;DR at the end.)
Last night (Saturday, 8/3) was the final night of The Rock Orchestra's BeatleFest 2019. BeatleFest (or, our event we call BeatleFest) is where our group of anywhere from 7-40 musicians play every single Beatles song (all 215 of them) in the order they were released, over a series of six consecutive nights. I equate it with running a marathon, but instead of running 26.2 miles on the streets of Boston, we're doing it on a tightrope. We do our damndest to recreate these songs note-for-note, as best as we possibly can without the help of studio magic... though we also really try to recreate those studio sounds live as best we can, too.
Out of 215 songs, I'm only tacet (not doing anything) on about 7 or 8 total.
For the show, I'm the 3rd singer (I sing the unintuitive harmony parts since I'm a choir nerd). I'm also the "if you get stuck vocally, Jill's got you," and this can even be in the middle of a song. Joe might give me a look and I know to cover (or double) a particularly high part, or I might hear a harmony and notice two people singing the same part, or I might see that someone forgot to sing, so I jump to the missing part on the fly. Or we might have given a female guest singer a song that goes too low for her, so I'll double those basement notes to give her support. Backstage I'm also in charge of running/checking harmonies for that night's tricky spots. I absolutely love getting to do this stuff. It keeps me on my toes, and I secretly love feeling helpful or being able to fix stuff in a pinch... it's been a weird thing of mine since I was a really little kid.
In addition to my vocal duties, I'm also the main percussionist (shakers, tambourines, maracas, casaba, etc) and one of the two 'aux-players' -- which means if there's an instrument we don't have covered either because nobody knows how to play it (see Indian tanpura and swarmindal) or everyone else is too busy to cover it (hello 2nd drums all over Abbey Road, or organ on Savoy Truffle), I figure it out. Up on my platform I have a billion nouns: everything from a drumset, a glockenspiel, soprano recorder, kazoos, Korg Triton keyboard, motorcycle exhaust pipes (for 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer,' 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey,' and for the alarm clock in 'A Day in the Life' when played with a different beater), an Ableton Live rig (for the scant sound effects we can't recreate live, (like the animals at the beginning/end of 'Good Morning, Good Morning') in addition to the usual tambourines and shakers and a bazillion other percussion toys.
Matt, however, is the real MVP aux-guy... he covers all of the melodic extra instruments, playing everything from extra piano, bass, guitar, synth, bari, alto, and soprano saxes, secondary percussion, plus backing vocals when we need four voices. He's a monster! It's a lot of fun going through our music at home and saying stuff like, "Wait, what do you do on 'Savoy Truffle?'" "I used to play the electric organ part, but now I'm gonna play bari sax. Can you cover the organ now?" "Yup! On it!"
My dear friend from college, Stefan, who specializes in Medieval and Renaissance instruments and runs Phoenix' hella-awesome early music group Bartholomew Faire (of which I am an alum), flew out from Arizona again this year to help us play the Indian-based songs using his assortment of unusual ancient instruments. He played hurdy-gurdy on most of the Indian tunes (Within You Without You), and he also took the recorder solo on Fool on the Hill, and he even played a crumhorn (that melodic buzzy sound) on 'Baby You're a Rich Man.' It was so wonderful having him stay with us again-- he is the perfect house guest: cheerful, low-maintenance, a late sleeper like us, funny as hell, self-sufficient, up for anything, friendly with all of the other musicians, and good for reminiscing, too. Anyway, I was sad dropping him off at the airport today.
This is the second year of the event, and you can tell we've refined things a bit. From a personal perspective, I was able to streamline all of my percussion gear thanks to some new racks, stands, and rack-mountable versions of some of my usual percussion instruments, so I wasn't the thing holding us up between songs like I sometimes was in 2018. I also had more room on my platform this year, so I had everything I needed within easy reach, as opposed to last year where I had to (for example) drag out and then put away a floor tom or a snare and hi-hat every time I played them.
I also added a footer to the last page of every song with the name of the next song and what I play on it... that way as we're playing the last chunk of a song I can quickly eyeball where my next batch of instruments are, and how I'll transition to them from what I'm currently doing. Why put the tambourine down if I need it at the top of the next song?
Performance-wise, Night 4 (aka "the long night") was probably my favorite-- that's the only night where we play 3 albums instead of just two (Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour), though the final Night 6 (Abbey Road and Let It Be, as well as the singles and Past Masters from that year, e.g., "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)") was a very very close second. My own personal roughest night was Night 5 (The Beatles (aka The White Album)), because I whiffed a harmony or two (in my defense, I was sight-reading one of them after I got a nod on stage to cover it), but it was still a hell of a fun night. Good GAWD how I love recreating 'Revolution No. 9' live. It's a riot!
Once again, like last year, I got totally emotional and lost my shit during "A Day in the Life." Good god, it's an overwhelming magical brain explosion to play it live with a string section, horn section, and with all of these people I just love so much. At one point I took out my in-ear monitors so I could hear the sound with my 'real ears' and holy mother of crap, it's just stupendous. Plus, it's cool as hell seeing the younger folks in the string section fall in love with The Beatles.
Physically, this year was a bit rougher than last year. I was getting woefully low on iron in May, and the earliest I could get in for an infusion was the morning of Day 2 of BeatleFest. I did BeatleFest last year sans iron and the crash afterwards was fucking awful, so I decided I'd rather get the infusion on a performance day and run the risk of playing percussion with a freshly sporked arm, because holding off was not a healthy option. Besides, the brain fog was getting bad, and I needed to be on my A-game for this thing. Infused iron takes about 2 days to fully absorb, and I was excited to be feeling better by Night 4 (the big night). The infusion went smoothly, and as expected, I felt better every 8 hours or so. (Speaking of my infusion, I just wanted to jot this down so I remember it: I'm very happy to be back at the hospital's Ambulatory Infusion center as I did from 2006-2010 as opposed to getting my treatment at the Cancer Center as I'd been since about 2011. Contrary to what you might expect, the care is just somehow better and cooler at Ambulatory Infusion than at the Cancer Center. Sure, the Cancer Center has the therapy doggos and the VR goggles of peaceful scenes, but it's still somehow impersonal and production-line-ish; and the blare of TVs blasting The View or whatever is so fucking annoying and inescapable. Also, the Cancer Center's specialty is chemo, not iron infusions, and they actually do iron infusions kinda stupidly backwards there. So yeah, I was happy to be back to the infusion center.)
By Wednesday morning my brain fog had significantly lifted, and my skin sans makeup was no longer corpse-guppy-translucent. :-)
Matt and I both agreed that this year, our biggest challenge was being able to see our goddamn music. It's like in the last 365 days our eyesight has hit that tipping point where music on a stand or tablet is too far away for reading glasses but too close for our usual distance glasses. It might be time to talk to our eye doctor for musician glasses for that middle kinda sheet music distance.
Speaking of sheet music, my magical tablet worked out perfectly-- not a single glitch during the show -- and HOLY BALLS was it a total, total game changer. It's amazing not having to turn paper pages and instead just tap a foot pedal. I was in heaven. It saved SO much time and so many headaches! I kept my paper sheet-music binders on stage juuuuust in case my tablet exploded, but I never needed it for a second. Whew!
We went back to the theater around 12:30pm today to load out the rest of our gear and break down the platforms, and that was pretty sad. As soon as we got home, we unloaded the car and then immediately loaded it up with Stefan's stuff and then I brought him to the airport. I just walked in a moment ago, and the house is eeeeeeerily quiet and calm. Nobody's rushing around, nobody's woodshedding parts last minute or getting music in order, figuring out what to wear, etc etc etc. It's kinda nice? I think?
I am pretty distracted by how much my hands really hurt, though. They hurt during the shows, but the combination of joy + adrenaline made it ignorable. But walking off the stage they'd be throbbing. Right now they are still distractingly painful; neither turmeric nor Advil even takes the edge off. A few years ago I bought a faithful replica of a late 60s-era skinless tambourine that sounds amaaaaazing, but also weighs about 98523823 pounds. Playing fast 16ths on that thing song after song after song really did a number on my right hand from having to grip it so tightly to maintain good control. My metacarpals are on fire as are the muscles in the meat of my palm. Holding things, turning doorknobs, and just generally using my fingers hurts pretty damn good. But also just doing nothing hurts. Typing sucks too, but I really want to write this all down, so fuck it.
In May when we played "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" twice in one day, I strained my right bicep and tricep from that goddamn tambourine, and that's when I became a disciple of KT Tape. Starting on Night 4 of BeatleFest I taped my arm and it really did help tremendously (and had the added bonus of reducing under-arm flab wiggle! Yay!). I may try taping my hand later.
In some screwed up way, having my body hurt after BeatleFest somehow feels good; like I have evidence that I gave it my all. I'm sure a better, healthier measure of success would be an internal feeling of the satisfaction of a job well done, but whatevz.
I've typed way too much.
TL;DR: BeatleFest 2019 was awesome. My tablet rocked; taping my arm helped a lot; getting an iron infusion was smart; I fucked up my hands but I somehow like it? I love getting to make music, especially with these people. I can't wait until next year.