There are definitely advantages to having been born in the fifties. For one thing, you can sing along quite passionately with Sting on that upbeat ditty from the Police's debut album, "Born in the 50's". And if you're lucky, by 1964 you were old enough to experience the world-changing event that was the American invasion by the Beatles.
James Owen missed that whole "coming of the Fab Four" business because he wasn't born in the fifties. But he still vividly remembers his first introduction to the sound of the Liverpool lads.
"Oh yeah, it's easy to remember the moment," says Owen from his home in Huntingdon Beach, California. "You know, I was born in the mid-'60s, so the first time I heard the Beatles was the early '70s, after they'd already broken up. I was about six years old, I think, and my dad's sister came out from New York to visit us in California. She was putting on some old rock 'n' roll stuff--Chubby Checker, and Everly Brothers. and then she put on Meet the Beatles, the first U.S. album the Beatles put out. And I thought, 'Who are these guys? Wow. That's phenomenal!' So I was instantly hooked."
Owen's infatuation with the Beatles has led to the point where, since 1996, he's been portraying John Lennon in the Classical Mystery Tour Beatles tribute, which performs with the Vancouver Symphony at the PNE on August 25. But the fact that he's been performing as Lennon for over a quarter-century now doesn't mean that McCartney's songwriting partner is his favourite moptop.
"I wasn't into picking a favourite Beatle when I was young," Owen points out. "But I was into the guitar, so I actually started off learning all the George Harrison guitar parts. I guess I gravitated more towards George, you know, but I wouldn't say I picked him as my favourite. I started off playing in Beatles tribute bands as George when I was a teen, and I didn't switch to playing John until I was in my 20s. People were telling me, 'Well, you look more like John anyway, you might try playing John Lennon.' So I finally gave it a try, and I'm glad I did."
Owen--who points to the mostly Lennon-penned "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" as maybe the best Beatles song ever, and chooses Rubber Soul as his fave LP--started playing piano at age six and guitar around seven or eight. Growing up in Huntingdon Beach, he got to see a lot of symphony concerts, including by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Long Beach Symphony, the former of which, he says, had a great pops concert series.
"I was studying classical piano," he recalls, "and of course the object there is to play like the composers intended. So that was just something I was raised to do. And I thought, 'When I get old I want to play Beatles music just like they sound on the records.' Then that Broadway show Beatlemania came out in the late '70s, and I thought, 'Wow, that's what I've been wanting to do. They're doing a simulation of what it would be like to see the Beatles play live.' So I got involved in doing that."
At 18 Owen began touring internationally with various productions of Beatlemania, visiting China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and several South American countries. In '96 he established the Classical Mystery Tour, which would see the Beatles tribute band he formed travel from city to city to perform with full orchestras. The group he put together features himself on rhythm guitar, piano, and vocals; Tony Kishman (as Paul) on bass guitar, piano, and vocals; Tom Teeley (as George) on lead guitar and vocals; and Chris Camilleri (as Ringo) on drums and vocals. (Teeley is currently having some medical work done on his hand and will be replaced at the PNE show by a new George played by Robbie Berg.)
Although he hasn't been keeping track, Owen figures that the Classical Mystery Tour has played over 100 shows with various symphonies, including the Boston Pops and the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras. He satys that one of the biggest highlights was playing with the Sydney Symphony at the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
His group has also performed with our own Vancouver Symphony a few times in the past, but he doesn't play favourites when asked which of the orchestras he's played with has most impressed him.
"All of them!," he declares, diplomatically. "They're all professional orchestras, and each individual musician has worked so hard at their instrument, you know, and they're together all the time. So I can't really say any one's better than the other."
While some dedicated VSO fans might be expecting to see music director Otto Tausk conducting the PNE show--especially after he proclaimed his love for the Beatles in a Georgia Straight interview last fall--it will actually be L.A.-based Martin Herman wielding the baton in Vancouver. He was commissioned to provide the orchestral transcriptions heard on the Classical Mystery Tour show, transcribing the musical scores note for note from the original Beatles recordings.
When asked which Beatles tunes have been going over best at recent shows, Owen cites "A Day in the Life" from Sgt. Pepper's and "Here Comes the Sun" from Abbey Road. And he thinks having a full orchestra perform those classics along with a rock quartet really puts the "beaut" in tribute.
"It's just an event," he says, "to have a band backed by an orchestra, especially when we all know the Beatles songs so intimately. And to hear it live, it just completely sets apart a show like this from a typical Beatles tribute band. If the band is good it's really fun to watch a Beatles tribute band, but with the orchestra it's just on a different plane, on a higher level I think. It's something that people can really get into deeply in the moment of the concert, and really appreciate what the Beatles accomplished as a group."
The Classical Mystery Tour, featuring the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, visits the PNE Amphitheatre on Thursday, August 25, at 8:30 p.m.