Sgt. Pepper Live

Cheap Trick

Big3 Records, 2009

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


No point in denying it -- this one tripped me out a little bit.

Over the past decade or so we’ve seen plenty of examples of clever and well-executed tribute albums, multiple or occasionally single artists covering choice cuts from various stages of a well-known artist’s catalog.  Former Yesman Billy Sherwood has taken it a logical step farther by producing/curating a couple of particularly strong Pink Floyd tribute albums in which a smorgasbord of all-star groupings have covered the entire albums The Wall and Dark Side Of The Moon track for track.

But a single artist, covering a single, uber-iconic album in its entirety – and doing it live, without a net?  In a word, yikes.

And to choose for said album a giant among giants, the immortal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band -- an album the Beatles themselves never performed live?  Who would have the cojones to tilt at a windmill that big? 

Leave it to (to paraphrase good ol’ Daredevil) the Men Without Fear… leave it to Cheap Trick.

In August of 2007, avowed Beatlemaniacs Robin Zander (vocals), Rick Nielsen (guitars), Tom Petersson (bass) and Bun E. Carlos (drums) were invited to perform Sgt. Pepper’s live with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra on the 40th anniversary of the album’s 1967 release.  The success (and, no doubt, thrill) of that gig surely helped convince the boys to repeat it at a New York charity concert on December 12th, 2007 – the performance captured on this disc and a simultaneous DVD release.  With the NY Philharmonic backing them and guest vocalists Joan Osborne, Ian Ball and Rob Laufer in tow, the Rockford, Illinois quartet set about again recreating live one of the most remarkable pieces of studio magic in the history of rock and roll.

The most fascinating aspect of this album – other than the sheer bravado required to even attempt what they’ve attempted here – is the way the band manages to make the performances sound natural.  At times they sound like Cheap Trick playing Beatles songs; at other times they sound eerily like the Beatles themselves; never do they sound anything but completely comfortable and confident inhabiting every nook and cranny of this iconic and also impossibly diverse album.  (It surely didn’t hurt that the band had the assistance of engineer Geoff Emerick, who worked on their 1980 disc my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 All Shook Up and, 13 years before that, on the original Sgt. Pepper’s.)

The title track has all the jaunty snap of the original, with the added turbo-boost of Nielsen’s exuberant guitar playing, which similarly lights up a notably upbeat “Fixing A Hole.”  The three tracks in between -- “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Getting Better” -- are largely faithful to canon, and mind-boggling at that.  Think about it; these three tracks were sung by three different Beatles in their original incarnations.  Here, Zander takes on all three roles and nails them all, while the band behind him recreates the arrangements note for note.

As if that wasn’t enough to put a smile of wonder on the listener’s face, “She’s Leaving Home” finds the other three Tricksters playing background vocalists to Zander’s luminous lead voice as the Philharmonic provides a hundred percent of the instrumental support.  This one gets a big ovation, and deservedly so.

The next four tracks offer the boys a relative breather as a steady stream of guests share the spotlight.  First, Ian Ball sits in on lead vocals for the bizarre fantasia that is “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite.”  Then Rob Laufer, the Philharmonic and an Indian sitar band deliver an appropriately otherworldly “Within You Without You.”  Ball then returns for a deeply affectionate take on “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and Joan Osborne steps up for an especially groovy femme’d-up “Lovely Rita.”

The closing set is where Cheap Trick proves once and for all that they are up to the task of interpreting Sgt. Pepper’s.  They invest “Good Morning Good Morning” with all the drive (and more) suggested by the original, follow it with a rousing “Sgt. Pepper’s… Reprise,” and drop directly into their piece de resistance, a simply stunning rendition of “A Day In The Life,” in which Zander once again sings both Lennon’s and McCartney’s parts. 

As a bonus, the boys finish with an encore of the Abbey Road medley (“Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”) that’s every bit as impressive as everything that’s come before, with the orchestra supporting their every move as Zander does Lennon, then McCartney, and back around again.

There are quibbles aplenty for the Beatles fanatic to fret over – chiefly, small changes to various arrangements and Nielsen’s occasionally too-thunderous guitar.  It would take a cold heart, though, not to get swept up in the pure joy, respect and affection demonstrated by four boys from Rockford who bow to no one in their appreciation for the music of their counterparts from Liverpool. 

As for cojones, as Dizzy Dean (and later, Reggie Jackson) famously said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”  Cheap Trick can do it; the proof’s right here.  This album is a delight.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2009 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Big3 Records, and is used for informational purposes only.