Hot WAX: White Album Xmas returns
MarchFourth band leader John Averill loves the Beatles, and formed the NowHere Band 18 years ago. Â In 2007 he was approached byÂ the WanderlustÂ Circus to compose music for a winter holiday event. Â Instead of original music, heÂ suggested replicating his favorite album live: The White album, also known as "The Beatles". Â
It was an idea so audacious it was funny. Averill and friends set about mastering the 30-track record, word for word and note for note, and a Christmas tradition was born: WAX or White Album Xmas, happens live every December at the Alberta Rose Theatre. The musicians are on one side of the stage, and Rose City Circus's tumblers, clowns and Portland weirdos are on the other.
The show is not just peculiarly Portlandy, it is quality entertainment: acrobatics crossed with musicianship, slapstick mixed with the Liverpudlians' laconic humor. While the NowHere Band is serious about the huge task of reproducing a pop classic, its first goal is to entertain.
"Someone described the 'White Album' as the greatest mixtape ever created by the same band," Averill told the Portland Tribune recently. He likes that the band produced so many styles of music. "I thought it'd be fun to try to replicate the entirety, including the horns and strings." After going virtual in 2020 because of COVID, WAX is back live on stage, for the 14th time. "We have guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion, multiple vocalists, a three-piece string section, and a five-piece horn section."
Accurate, with a lot of feelings
Averill has no idea how many people are in the circus act this year. The band rehearses and Rose City Circus writes its own script afresh each year. Both sides don't meet until the dress rehearsal.
"At this point, we've been doing it so long that it's pretty easy to get back on the horse every year. 'Helter Skelter,' that's a lot of energy screaming, and believe it or not, 'Rocky Raccoon' is hard because there are so many words and notesÂ delivered in rapidÂ succession, the whole scat line is very precise."
On the album, George Martin's production, the instrumentation, overdubbing and mixing, was a tour de force, which makes playing it live a challenge. The Beatles never toured the 1968 album live because they broke up soon after its release. Averill says every year he finds something new in the music.
"Especially when you listen with headphones, you really find very interesting things. A lot of it is in the vocal harmonies. Certain parts don't really come out until the untrained ear starts really digging in. That's the joy of it."
Averill found he was singing one line inÂ the verse to "Back in the USSR" wrong, by one note. "I must have done it eight or nine years before I realized one of the little notes was slightly wrong." He used to sing "Didn't get to bed last night," whereas Paul McCartney sang the word "bed" one note higher. He was amazed he'd never noticed it, and nor had his bandmates.
Averill recommends Rick Rubin and Paul McCartney's documentary "McCartney 3,2,1" for similar insights.Â
"My M.O. is accuracy with feeling. We really try to replicate the songs as accurately as possible, but also deliver a lot of passion, as opposed to being a bunch of stiffs on stage." The one song they usually trim is the nine-minute "Revolution 9," which contains a long sound collage by John and Yoko which is hard to replicate. Averill admits playing the whole thing would stall the energy of the concert just before the big exit number, "Good Night."
"The show itself is three hours with an intermission and we just didn't feel like putting the audience though that."
Jon Dutch is the director of the Rose City Circus , and is in the show. "This is our biggest show, and it's the best collection of talent that we would put together all year. We have performers, jugglers, comedians, avant-garde kind of clowns, and lots of aerial and ground acrobatics." The script doesn't follow the Beatles music, but it's a fascinating visual accompaniment.
"We're really big fans of circus acts that push boundaries and are creative within themselves," Dutch told the Portland Tribune. They have Cyr wheel, a large wheel that turns into an aerial act, and Perch pole, where an acrobat performs handstands on top of a 15-foot pole balanced on the bases forehead. Dutch recruits the new circus acts. Local all stars are joined by out of town fresh talent, including Cuream Jackson, one of the best straps artists in the world, and Marcela Rodas, a contortionist from Guatemala.
"One of our performers is Leapin' LouieLeapin' Louie Lichtenstein, a world-famous cowboy clown and trick roper," says Dutch. "He's in his 50s and he's literally performed in 100 countries and, and he does this finale trick where he's got the big lasso. He stands on the very edge of the stage and his lasso extends out 20 to 30 feet, this big huge hoop of it. That final song is so happy and half the crowd is underneath this guy's trick. Just watching their faces, it's just one of those moments of pure joy."
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