It may sound otherwise on their sonic masterpieces, but the Beatles were just four guys. Four incredibly talented guys to be sure, but just a quartet.
Now imagine if they had a backup band of musician’s musicians, including horns, strings, even a harp. This might give you an idea of what things will sound like when the Fab Faux perform on Saturday, October 16, at the State Theater in New Brunswick, accompanied by the Hogs Head Horns and Creme Tangerine strings.
Praised by David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine as “the greatest Beatles cover band,” this quintet of New York-based musicians includes Rich Pagano on drums and lead vocals, Frank Agnello on guitar, keyboardist/guitarist Jack Petruzzelli, guitarist Jimmy Vivino, and Will Lee on bass.
Longtime fans of the Late Show with David Letterman will recognize Lee as the bassist for the CBS Orchestra. Vivino was the music director for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, as well as a member of the Max Weinberg 7. Pagano, Petruzzelli, and Agnello are also much in-demand studio musicians and producers, working with the likes of Ian Hunter, David Johansen, Ray Davies, Rufus Wainwright, Marshall Crenshaw, and Patti Smith.
Pagano is a noted producer and a gifted songwriter, who released his critically acclaimed debut solo album, Rich Pagano and the SugarCane Cups, in 2009, recorded at his New Calcutta studio in Manhattan. A live album from his recent solo tour is in the works.
The personnel among the horns and strings are no slouches either, comprised of musicians who have played with Blood, Sweat, and Tears, the Blues Brothers, and the Saturday Night Live band. All the band members sing as well, which makes for some lush live harmony.
Don’t look for mop-top wigs or Sgt. Pepper-style psychedelic costumes, though. The Fab Faux are not about the staging or clothes: they’re about the music. Their shows are an inspired re-discovery of the Beatles’ musical magic, and the Fab Faux tackle the group’s most demanding material live onstage, with super attention to details: for example, listen for the piccolo trumpet solo in “Penny Lane.”
“We try not to use anything pre-recorded: we recreate every sound,” says Pagano in a phone interview. “We’re not the replicators anymore, it’s much more of a live approach, and the energy level is way higher now, even more so than just a couple of years ago.”
All the musicians are busy, but their lives have been especially crazy recently, since they have been rehearsing and performing a special Fab Faux all-John Lennon show, a tribute to the late Beatle, to mark what would have been his 70th birthday. (Lennon was born October 9, 1940.)
Just a few weeks ago, they performed a hugely successful benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall, drawing from Lennon’s work with the Beatles as well as his solo material.
For the October 16 show, which the band calls “The Great Hodge Podge,” concertgoers can expect a little bit of everything the Beatles have to offer, from the very early days of the Cavern Club era, to Let it Be and Abbey Road. “It’s a combination of our favorites and fan favorites,” Pagano says, adding that it’s a challenge to balance their individual careers with the Fab Faux, “especially from September to December. We have a lot of theater shows this time of year, and things will come up for each of us, but we have to say no. If there’s a Fab Faux gig, we have to be there. But then again, we’re playing Beatles music, so it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Often when you talk to a musician so deeply immersed in the Beatles, they’ll tell the story of seeing the Fab Four on the Ed Sullivan Show, but Pagano’s discovery of the group came later, since he was only two years old in 1964. It was actually not the music that first interested him, but the way the Beatles looked. “There was something about the ‘Abbey Road’ cover, and I thought they looked so cool, especially George Harrison,” Pagano says.
“I turned to my dad and said, ‘I have to have this record,’ and so he brought it home. My dad was an audiophile and had this great stereo system. When he put the needle down on the first song on the album, ‘Come Together,’ I had never heard such a sound before. That record was the beginning; it opened me up to rock and roll.
“Eventually I went in 25 different directions, but from about age eight through junior high school, the Beatles were everything to me,” he continues. “They were a good narcotic to me, their sound, vocally and musically, had a calming effect.”
When the Fab Faux first formed in 1998, the members learned that they all had different launching points for their Beatles fandom, and so they brought different perspectives. Lee was one of those fans who saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, so he loved their earlier material.
“Will likes the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ era, so he’ll bring something from that,” Pagano says. “Jimmy will bring something from ‘Revolver,’ same with Frank. I always like to throw something in from ‘The White Album.’ Jack is a little younger, and when he was growing up, everything by the Beatles was on the radio, so he brings that perspective.
“But it was ‘Abbey Road’ that really changed my life,” he says. “I’m a session drummer, and when people call me to play, they’ll request a ‘Jim Keltner sound’ — Jim who played on so many of the Beatles’ solo albums. Or they’ll ask for a ‘Ringo sound.’ I defer to Ringo’s drumming on ‘Abbey Road;’ it’s still a big part of my own drumming. I love it all, but there’s something about the solidness of his work on ‘Abbey Road.’”
Pagano says he chose the drums as his main instrument because his dad looked so cool with drum sticks in his hands. Growing up on Long Island, there was always music in the house, a guitar here, a piano there, some percussion, although no one played seriously. His father was an airline mechanic, and his mother was a bookkeeper and homemaker.
“My dad had played drums for about two weeks in high school, but he remembered how to hold the sticks, and I just thought that was so cool,” Pagano says.
There was a period of time when he was leaning toward a career in the visual arts, he says. “I went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan as an illustration major, and came out of school (in the early ’80s) and did that for awhile, but I gravitated back toward music,” he says. “I paint now more than ever, especially with Nicolas, my 10-year old son. We paint murals on his walls, and I’m having a great time painting his dreams and nightmares. Nicolas loves the Beatles, and he’s already a song and dance kid. Of course though, when I put on the Beatles, 10 minutes later, he’ll switch over to Lady Gaga. It’s a generational thing.”
Pagano’s wife, Karen, is an art dealer and “more of a Stones person,” he says, although she loves the Beatles, too. She was involved in two exhibits featuring the late Linda McCartney’s photography, and Pagano was able to have a lengthy conversation with “Sir Paul.”
“This was before the Fab Faux formed, and I was the only musician there at the gallery,” Pagano says. “Paul was cool with me. I didn’t go crazy with fan questions, and because I own a recording studio, we talked about studio work. I think it was refreshing for him, and he was very gracious.
“John Lennon usually gets the credit for being avant garde because he was always pushing the envelope; his words and music were more abrasive than Paul’s,” Pagano says. “But Paul is equal to John in musical genius. He was the one who created the tape loops and basically produced John’s song, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ that strange little song on ‘Revolver.’ He’s proud of that legacy.”
As for a favorite Beatles song and/or album, Pagano says it changes for him just about every month. “Right now, my favorite song is ‘Paperback Writer,’ but the mono mix,” he says. “Those are the true Beatles’ mixes.”
The Fab Faux, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Saturday, October 16, 8 p.m. Beatles cover band recreated as they were written, arranged, and performed with Hogs Head Horns and Creme Tangerine Strings. $40 to $85. Post show meet and greet available for additional $25. The Fab Faux on the Web: www.thefabfaux.com. Rich Pagano on the Web: www.richpagano.com. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.