Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Art of Time Ensemble
At Enwave Theatre
in Toronto on Thursday
I didn't buy what Andrew Burashko said at the beginning of Art of Times's performance of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He told his audience that his chamber ensemble would present the 1967 album "not quite as the Beatles had intended." What the Beatles had intended, it's doubtful they even knew themselves – the work was a victory of George Martin, lysergic acid diethylamide and musical minds which could not be kept from wandering. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wouldn't have known what they were inventing at the time.
Forty-five years later, the scrutiny and reinterpreting of the album continues. Some days it's overrated; other days, underrated. McCartney presciently had it right when he wrote the line about the Peppers "going in and out of style."
Style is what Burashko and his people have in spades. The troupe and guest singers and sometimes actors do sophisticated things to pieces such as Orson Welles's The War of the Worlds or the Beatles' Abbey Road. When they look at a composer such as Franz Schubert, they do so with a very wide view, not only revisiting his works but presenting contemporary songs inspired by him.
They had fun with Sgt. Pepper. The soundtrack to the Summer of Love seemed much more a small, elegant, indoors affair. No mellotrons or dilrubas were harmed or even used. Artful and occasionally whimsical layouts were nimble and featured strings, though the album's original melodies, lyrics and vocal harmonies (from Steven Page, John Mann, Andy Maize and Craig Northey) were as we remember them. But then memories play tricks, and so does Art of Time.
Take trumpeter Larry Larson, who threw in a little dash of Bolero at the end of Strawberry Fields. Neat.
Wait a minute, Strawberry Fields? "You're probably confused and confounded," said pianist-director Burashko. He then explained that Lennon's nostalgically-set psychoanalysis – "No one I think is in my tree" – was one of three songs recorded for Sgt. Pepper that never made it to that record.
Then Page, the former Barenaked Ladies singer, counted in the album's lead title track, with the familiar clipped "1-2-3-4." The version was slighter and jauntier; Page tried, but failed, not to sing out of key.
With a Little Help from My Friends was sung with a theatrical flair by John Mann, of the Vancouver folk-rockers Spirit of the West. The tasteful arrangement was less chummy than the original.
No doubt A Day in the Life provided the most challenge to reimagine, the sprawling multipart piece being woollier and more epic than the Maharishi's beard. Art of Time's arrangement was a disappointment, graceful and affecting as it was. The final suspended piano chord was hardly suspended – no grand dismount; none deserved. Neil Young and Jeff Beck both have done it better.
Other quibbles: Why, Craig Northey (of the Vancouver power-pop group Odds), did you sing Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! through a coned hand, as if to duplicate Lennon's megaphone vocal effect? That was imitation, not imagination. And why were the singers all male? Was Sarah Slean busy?
Speaking of Slean, perhaps having the pop-cabaretist perform the complete album solo on piano would be something to hear. As the album was a triumph of out-of-their-minds production, stripping the whole thing down to its bones would have been a revealing exercise.
Anyhow, the mostly excellent concert ended with All You Need Is Love and Penny Lane, McCartney's pleasant exercise in wistfulness and childhood memories – "there beneath the blue suburban skies." Art of Time chooses to rebuild magic, not restore it. The Beatles loved to turn us on, and so to does Burashko and his friends. Sgt. Pepper, the act we've known for all these years, looked fine at 45.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.