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September 13-19, 2006

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White Album Ensemble

Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
Eight Is Enough: From left to right, Tiran Porter, Bob Bliss, Dale Ockerman, Richard Bryant, Michael Daugherty, Jason Schimmel, Alan Heit and Ken Kraft.

Let It Be Here Now

The White Album Ensemble's fab eight take on the last two Beatles albums and talk about a musical legacy that extends from Liverpool to Santa Cruz

By Bill Forman

THE BUILDING where the White Album Ensemble do most of their rehearsing can lay claim to nearly as much history as the music they've chosen to play. According to keyboardist and musical jack-of-all-trades Dale Ockerman, the Front Street storefront in Santa Cruz was once a Chinese poultry shop and, before that, a house of ill repute.

Dale Ockerman is a Zelig-like presence in the history of Northern California rock & roll. He hooked up with San Francisco '60s band Quicksilver, whose posters had graced his bedroom growing up in Castro Valley, in time to play keyboards with them onstage at the closing of the old Fillmore West. In Santa Cruz, he joined the Ducks right after Neil Young left the band, and played with Michael Been in Airtight, a group that would go on to national success as the Call. He has been a member of such diverse groups as the Doobie Brothers, local legends Snail and Meters founder Zigaboo Modeliste's New Aahkesstra.

He is, in short, a one-man repository of local music history, much of which is present and accounted for in his current labor of love, the White Album Ensemble, which performs this weekend at the Montgomery Theater.

In addition to Ockerman on keys, guitar, vocals and trumpet, the band features Snail co-founding guitarist/vocalist Ken Kraft, Doobie Brothers bassist Tiran Porter, vocalists Richard Bryant (who did stints in Snail, the Doobies and Little River Band) and Alan Heit (Roadhogs, Future Primitive), guitarist Jason Schimmel (Estradasphere, 13th Partial Trio), keyboardist Bob Bliss (the Fans, Dreambeach, Joe Sharino) and drummer Michael Daugherty (Road Hogs, Jewls Blues).

The band got its start when local luthier Rick McKee hired them to do the Beatles' White Album as an art project. The musicians quickly realized that four players—no matter how fab—could never replicate the sound of the albums that John, Paul, George, Ringo and producer George Martin made after the band quit touring. Taking up where the Beatles left off, in fact, required a doubling of the core lineup, as well as a host of guest musicians (including some South Bay gospel singers who will be at the Montgomery show).

Over the last three years, the group has done concert performances of The White Album, a combined evening of Rubber Soul and Revolver, and, earlier this year, Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper. This weekend, the group takes on the Beatles' final two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be.

There are reasons why the White Album Ensemble's entire oeuvre was never performed live by the Beatles, not least the fact that those albums were, at the time, the epitome of true studio creations, only rivaled by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. "Before I got into the Beatles, I was a Beach Boys nut," says Ken Kraft, who plays guitar and sings all the George Harrison songs in the White Album Ensemble. "I think a lot of it was because I was in California, but also their music was really very good. The creative fire and competition between Brian Wilson and Lennon and McCartney was very important to both groups."

Tiran Porter has similar memories. Like much of America in those days, the future Doobie Brothers mainstay willingly spent many a Sunday night wading through the worst parts of The Ed Sullivan Show—spinning plate acts, creepy mouse puppet Topo Gigio—in order to catch the Beatles' frequent guest appearances. It was the true beginning of "must-see television," but it was through the medium of radio that Porter first encountered the Liverpool Sound.

"I still have the transistor radio—a big console version—that I first heard them on," says Porter. "I kept it as a souvenir. I remember it was KFWB in Los Angeles, and they played 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' and I just went, 'Is that cool!'" So cool, in fact, that Porter, who describes Paul McCartney's bass lines as "busy, melodic and essential," learned bass by playing along to the music he's now playing with the White Album Ensemble.

When We Was Fab

The Beatles landed in the States during a period of disillusionment and lost innocence that was likely as profound as the one many Americans are experiencing today. Their British Invasion was, in many ways, the necessary salve for a nation shell-shocked by the Kennedy assassination. The way Ockerman figures it, "We were perfectly set up for some optimistic, fresh-faced, longhaired peace and love thing to come from England and just take over."

Of course, post-empire England had its own sense of yearning, particularly in the aftermath of World War II bombings. "Many of those musicians lost their dads in the war, so they had to deal with their own collective ego implosion."

Ockerman figures that yearning and vulnerability offered a clear alternative to the previously reigning on-top-of-the-world views of Sinatra and his Rat Pack: "It was a real contrast to the prevailing Sinatra macho thing, this real yin to the yang thing. The Beatles weren't totally feminine, but they weren't totally masculine either. The long hair and the fact that they didn't act too dominant—they always had a tinge of androgyny—whereas Frank and guys like that were totally, 'Hey, babe," totally macho. So one thing always sets up another."

The Beatles may have been in touch with their feminine sides, but it took the White Album Ensemble to integrate the band racially. "Yes, we do have the first black Beatles," laughs Ockerman. "But, you know, the Beatles really always wanted to be the black Beatles, because when you look at Rubber Soul, that originally was their wanting to be like Motown."

"The Beatles didn't succeed at being a soul band any more than the Rolling Stones succeeded at being a blues band, but both really tried," continues Ockerman. "And, you know, they did an acceptable job of it, but they wouldn't have made a living as the latest Motown sensation: four white guys from Liverpool! It wouldn't have made it with the white teenagers, here, but they really wanted to be like that."

It's All Too Much

Asked how purists are likely to respond to the White Album Ensemble project, Ockerman says he's not worried. "Well, it is messing with the purity, but most people, even the biggest Beatles fans, will admit that Let It Be is the sound of the world's most popular band falling apart. You can hear them breaking up, just going along and not giving a shit about how they record, playing out of tune."

When the band recently gave a talk at UC-Santa Cruz, professor Fred Lieberman asked if they were going to perform the Phil Spector version or the more recently released Andy Johns "Naked" version. Ockerman answered by asking the audience how many people bought the latter. When only a few hands went up, Ockerman explained how nobody but Paul liked the record when they did it. After Spector had his way with it, he says, "John Lennon said, 'Well, at least I didn't puke when I listened to it.'

"But if you detach the album from all the bullshit, the songs are great," he continues. "So we'll use arrangements from the Spector stuff, where they work. You know, like [the Spector version of] 'Long and Winding Road' has some pretty violins, so we like that because the naked version didn't have that. But the naked version has a better vocal, so Richard, our Paul vocalist, likes that vocal better, and he'll be drawing more on that."

And while the ensemble may employ digital sample-based synthesizers, they never rely on sequenced or pre-recorded parts. "Bob Bliss, the other keyboardist, he designs for Emu, so he has the ultimate [sampled] Mellotron archives," says Ockerman. "But I, however, have gone totally retro and am bringing my Hammond B-3, my Wurlitzer electric piano, and yes, I'll have that Leslie speaker spinning."

I've seen the two surviving Beatles play their old songs live, and it's amazing but true that the White Album Ensemble does a better job of it. "Well, nobody's gonna sing it more like Paul than Paul," says Ockerman, looking a bit embarrassed by the compliment. "But if the keyboard player is playing the Penny Lane trumpet solo with his left hand as he's doing the piano with the right, you're gonna lose a little something. It take a lot of people if you really want to sound like the record. ... We always hope one of these days the word will spread and one of the surviving guys will pop down and give it a nod."

And if not, Ockerman says it's had an immeasurable influence on his own songwriting. "When I play this stuff, it's so good that I'm just humbled," he says. "Now with all these Beatles riffs running through my head, it makes it hard to sit down and write a crappy song."

The White Album Ensemble performs Let Abbey Road Be Sept. 15-16 at 8pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $25-$45. (888.455.SHOW) Full Disclosure: Metro is one of the sponsors of this show.

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