Performer hopes interactive Beatles tribute show connects with audiences at Pantages Theater in highly personal ways
By Rosemary Ponnekanti Billy McGuigan still recalls the moments when “Let it Be” resonated through his life: his first live Paul McCartney concert, his father’s funeral, his daughter’s first Paul McCartney concert.
For the Florida singer and his two brothers, Beatles songs were woven into the stories of their lives. And he’s betting the same is true for his audience this weekend at “Yesterday and Today,” the touring Beatles tribute show coming to the Pantages Theater.
Because this isn’t a wigs-and-accents tribute. Rather, it’s a tribute to all the Beatles stories from the audience, written down before the show on index cards and read poignantly aloud by McGuigan as he forms the playlist around them.
It’s an interactive twist on the endless stream of Beatles re-creation shows that feed off the passion folks still have for these rock legends. And it’s been a big hit for McGuigan and his brothers, who’ve toured the show successfully for seven years and are hitting the Pacific Northwest for the first time. On the phone with The News Tribune, McGuigan explained how he does this interactive tribute, and why folks love it.
Q: You’ve been touring “Yesterday and Today” since 2007. Was it always interactive?
A: Yes, right from the start, but I didn’t have any idea of the effect it would have. My brothers and I grew up Beatles fans — we didn’t have much money, and our father played us Beatles records instead of going out. So (after he died) we thought we’d make a band, learn all the songs and ask the audience for suggestions about what to play. But we don’t wear wigs or talk with accents. It’s not the music that shapes the show, it’s the audience’s own experiences. That makes the songs much more special. All the barriers are down; we’re really able to connect with them and (them) with us. Our job is to paint a picture of the stories they told, and it really packs a punch.
Q: Explain the process. Before the show, the audience fills out their song requests with the story of what it means to each of them. The cards are given to you. And then?
A: Over the years, I’ve gotten good at it; I emcee the show, basically. I clump the cards into “most requested” piles, and that’s usually the same city to city. Everyone asks for “Let it Be,” everyone asks for “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket to Ride.” Then I sort out the unusual ones, and what I call the smartass pile. They’re the ones we love, when the most obscure songs are played live, people love it. And we know them all. We go with the flow, we’re not tied to a particular era or costume change, so we can really explore the music.
Q: Have you ever thought about doing the requests digitally, in real time?
A: We started to do some Twitter stuff, but it sometimes didn’t work. I’d go back to the hotel after the show and there would be all these requests that didn’t come through. Technology is beautiful but it doesn’t always work.
Q: What’s the most poignant story you’ve ever gotten?
A: We were playing “Hey Jude” in Omaha, Nebraska. There were about 300 people, a really personal concert. I called the person’s name on the card and they stood up. I hadn’t pre-read the card, so I just started reading, and it went something like: “My little brother died in 1968 from a rare disease, and we played this song at his funeral. We all held hands and sang.” I got choked up, the audience got choked up. And then you get to play the song in the way it was meant to be heard: not just the chords or singing like John Lennon, but really meaning the words “take a sad song and make it better.” It’s like healing. It’s awesome.
Q: If you wrote a request on a card, what would it be?
A: “Let it Be.” And my story would be how in our family my dad would never let us pick a favorite Beatles song, we had to like them all. But for my graduation present, my father took me to see Paul McCartney live, and my favorite moment, the moment we went from being father and son to friends, was when Paul started playing “Let it Be” and my father leaned over and said that that was his favorite song. We played it at his funeral. And then, a few years ago when I took my daughter Cartney (she’s named after him) to see Paul live in concert, she leaned over at the very same moment and said to me, “This is my favorite song.” It stopped my heart.
But I couldn’t read that card out because I’d get choked up.
Q: Why don’t you do the wigs and accents?
A: Well, Ryan looks like Paul, and Matthew looks like George but he doesn’t play bass. I look a bit like John but I don’t sing those songs. So it got really complicated. And we thought, if we don’t dress up, it’ll differentiate us. Plus it breaks the barrier with the audience. It’s not kitschy.
Q: Who plays what?
A: I play rhythm guitar and piano; Ryan plays acoustic guitar and piano; Matthew plays bass. We have a great lead guitarist and a drummer.
Q: Do you replicate the Beatles’ guitars?
A: Oh yes, we travel with 30 guitars. Our lead guitarist has every kind of George Harrison guitar. We’ve worked hard to make it sound as close to them as we possibly can. We worry about the important things.
Q: How is it touring with your brothers?
A: When we first started out, it had its obstacles. You had to relearn how to live with each other and not fight like you’re 12 years old. And there were fights! But we’ve gotten over that. It’s like going back to college, you get to be kids again. I love them more than anything. But I don’t know if they’d say the same!
Q: Do you ever get sick of the Beatles? Or of Buddy Holly, the other interactive re-enactment show you do?
A: It’s easy to get tired of Buddy Holly. Every song has the same three chords. But with 200-plus songs, and what’s basically a brand-new show each night, I never get sick of (the Beatles). The way people respond won’t let you.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com