Classic rock lives — and it is being played live at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
The Toronto-based Classic Albums Live will present four shows this summer at the theater in the Hub City, offering note-for-note recreations of some of rock ’n’ roll’s most famous and best-loved recordings, taking on The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and The Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” A performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zepellin II” took place July 13.
These are not cover shows in the traditional sense, says Dale Gago, publicist for the soon-to-be 10-year-old concert series. The shows are designed to offer a much deeper exploration of the music.
“Nobody is dressed as the Stones or acts like Mick Jagger,” Gago says. “It is about the music. When they see and hear the songs recreated, it blows them away. Some probably go in saying, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ They say, ‘I doubt you can pull it off,’ but people are impressed and they get the experience we promise.”
The New Brunswick shows will feature several iconic albums:
The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”: The 1971 classic is a slower, bluesy affair that is the first to feature Mick Taylor on guitar. The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and featured No. 1 single “Brown Sugar” and the top-40 hit “Wild Horses.”
Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”: Released in 1973, the album hit No. 1 thanks to a more focused songwriting approach, and features the groundbreaking songs “Money” and “Time.”
The Eagles’ “Hotel California”: Guitarist Joe Walsh joined the band for the 1976 album and helped drive a more rock-oriented album. The album featured two No. 1 singles, hit No. 1 on the album charts, and won two Grammy awards.
The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”: The band’s final recording, released in 1969, hit No. 1 on the charts and spawned the No. 1 single “Come Together” and No. 3 single “Something.”
The concert series began in Toronto in 2003 at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, created by songwriter and producer Craig Martin. Martin, who works the sound board on as many shows as he can, was writing jingles and songs for others and producing music when it “hit him like a bolt of lightning that people love albums and no one has been doing anything like this,” says Gago.
According to the Classic Albums Live Website, Martin played in a Rolling Stones cover band for 15 years before launching the concert series as a monthly series. It has branched out with 100 shows a year across North America. Classic Albums Live has produced shows featuring about 30 different classic albums, including a Beatles marathon.
To Gago, the success proves the timelessness of the music.
“These are all the classic albums — all the greatest classic rock albums of all time,” he says. “It is cool to see your favorite album performed in a concert setting, to see these musicians — it is really, really impressive, and any music fan would love to see these kinds of things.”
Classic Albums Live has increased the number of shows it does annually almost from its first year, growing even as the concert industry experienced difficult times several years ago and now during the recession. That’s primarily due to the concept of connecting with audiences — confirmed by acts like Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams performing full albums on tour. The cost also factors in, because at between $25 and $45 a ticket, it is a good buy in a concert market that charges $100 and upward to see a show.
“Went to see Aerosmith recently and it was $175 a ticket,” Gago says. The same is true for acts like Roger Waters and Paul McCartney.
“We’re definitely more affordable, and you’re getting to see one of your very favorite albums in a live setting with world-class musicians, so it is very special.”
The series was designed to give audiences a chance to experience the music the way the musicians intended when they went into the studio. That means choirs and symphonies, multiple guitar players and singers, dueling organs, and an all-out effort to recreate the sound.
“Dark Side of the Moon,” for instance, is particularly challenging for the musicians involved. The guitar and keyboard work is extremely nuanced and detailed, Gago says, and the musicians spend a lot of time working on the smallest parts to ensure they get everything right.
“For every album we showcase, we put together an assemblage of world-class musicians,” Gago says. “They come from all over the place — session musicians, people who’ve toured with famous acts, and we get calls from people wanting to audition and play with us. There is no shortage of musicians who want to play in the series.
“These are the best musicians around. Some of these parts on some of these albums can be difficult. These are parts that legends have written over the years.”
Most of the musicians’ names would not be familiar to the average fan, which Gago says offers an advantage to the Classic Albums Live performances. Audiences cannot fixate on the famous players, and instead have no choice but to engage with the music.
“It is about the music and about the album,” Gago says. “We don’t want anybody taking away from that. You’re seeing these world-class musicians up there for the album and not for their own personal stardom, and that is very cool.”
That’s not to say that producing the shows is easy. Recreating the complicated solos from a Pink Floyd album or the tight harmonies of a Beatles song can lead to some discussion and debate. But that is part of the process of creating the best experience possible for the concert-goer, Gago says.
“Even with a Beatles harmony, I’ve seen musicians arguing and disagreeing over how the harmony went,” he says. “We’re talking about albums that have been dissected for 40-plus years, and sometimes musicians have their different opinions over how the albums have been recorded.”
Each show features a note-for-note, track-for-track recreation of the classic album, sometimes featuring as many as 25 or 30 musicians on stage. That is followed by a break and a collection of music from the musicians who originally recorded the album. “Sticky Fingers” will feature some other Stones tracks, “Dark Side of the Moon” will feature some of Pink Floyd’s other music, and so on.
All of this makes for a satisfying experience, according to Toronto reviewer Godfrey Jordan.
“Hearing famous studio-born creations of the 1960s and 1970s now performed live presents something hitherto unknown: witnessing the fruits of what could have been a six-month recording process rendered precisely in a 48-minute recital,” he says. “It may be the first and only occasion for an album’s real-time performance played note-for-note, cut-for-cut in the same order as on the released LP.”
The experience, Jordan says, “is as close as one will ever get to sitting inside the recording studio, being able to scrutinize the actual musicianship behind the layer-upon-layer of tracks that comprise each song.”
Words, however, cannot do justice to the experience, Gago says.
“You really need to attend a show to get the full sense of what it is about.”
Classic Albums Live, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. “Sticky Fingers,” Friday, July 27; “Dark Side of the Moon,” Saturday, August 4; “Hotel California,” Friday, August 10; “Abbey Road,” Friday, August 24. All shows start at 8 p.m. $25-$45. www.statetheatrenj.org or 732-246-7469.