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Stage Buzz: Abbey Road at City Winery – October 23 • Chicago

| October 15, 2021

The timing couldn’t be more right. With this week’s anniversary edition of Let It Be dropping in stores and online, and the six-hour Peter Jackson Thanksgiving documentary Get Back slated for Disney streaming debut next month, Steven Kikoen’s debut of Beatles tribute band Abbey Road at City Winery on October 23 seems like it was meant to be.

For Kikoen, who also fronts several other original and all-star cover bands, his newest project is a labor of love for arguably six of the hardest working musicians in Chicago. Yolking a cast of award-winning and sought-after string and brass ensemble players, the show will include the orchestral component of the band that performs both the hits and Beatle deep-cuts you may not hear at a look-alike show.

We spoke to Kikoen as he put the final touches on his newest project:

IE: Obviously, the Beatles changed musically and personally in incredible ways over the three years after making their American debut in 1964. Because of the name “Abbey Road,” are you concentrating on The Blue Album period of 1967-1970?

SK:  I like the way you framed the question around those three years of such remarkable change in The Beatles’ lexicon. 1964–1967 encapsulates the most significant changes in their entire decade-plus together. But in answering your question, no, we will be honoring their entire prolific output from 1958 to 1970. The name “Abbey Road” was chosen for the band as it’s the common denominator – the room where it happened. Although when they started, it had a different name, “EMI Recording Studios,” and was christened “Abbey Road” in the 1970s by then studio manager and creator of ADT (Artificial Double Tracking) Ken Townsend. In 1966, John Lennon was growing increasingly annoyed having to double-track yet another lead vocal, which was, of course, record producer George Martin’s signature technique adorned on all Beatle albums. Ken Townsend’s answer to Lennon’s plight was to invent ADT. It worked.

IE:  You have several other bands that you’ve built up with significant followings over the years (Deacon Blues, Big Suit, Lotus Kings). Why Beatles and why now?

SK:  Thank you for acknowledging our other Deacon Productions’ groups, but yes, why Beatles and why now? It’s an interesting question. The more time passes, the more the profound effect of The Beatles becomes apparent. It is evident to many of us that we’ve lived through a defining moment in music history. The Beatles became the pinnacle in popular music. Their most impressive accolade is that regardless of musical genre, they are, to this day and without question, still the top influence of today’s incredibly varied artists. And the fact that they achieved this purely on instinct, on determination, and by ear is astonishing.

I taught a Beatles class to teenagers for many years. Turning them on to John, Paul, George, and Ringo and their collective genius have been a genuine, serious highlight for me. How many of us can remember being so very young, and yet being so significantly affected on that seminal night of February 9, 1964, when 73 Million people watched these young men––who were barely in their 20’s––take over music as we knew it? I remember looking at my tiny violin, then back at the black & white TV screen surrounded by my family, watching these amazing-looking lads from Liverpool with their cool matching outfits, their long hair, those fantastic guitars, and all of the screaming girls, and then back at my tiny violin. Yep, from that moment on, I was a changed musician. I knew in an instant what I needed to do. Period. And it gets even crazier when you realize that all these years later, the Beatles are still number one—still the pinnacle. Everyone still considers the world’s first rock group to be the best that ever was. Astounding.

IE:  Can you give us a hint of what the setlist will be?

SK:  Sure. If you grab a ticket to ride to see this show, even if you’ve had a hard day’s night, you’ll be able to relax with perhaps a little help from your friends, and soon you’ll say to yourself, I feel fine! When we all come together at City Winery, they’ll be something of a vibe amongst your fellow Beatlemaniacs that will allow you to temporarily forget that we sometimes carry the weight of the world’s problems, as we all collectively experience a day on the life of the Beatles, when they captured lightning in a bottle. So, apologies to Lady Madonna, but I think I’ve come to the end of the hint.

IE:  Are you going to include your orchestral ensemble for the City Winery debut show?

SK:  Yes, and we’re super excited about it! But first, let me tell you that we’re not putting ourselves out there as look-alikes – but as insanely great sound-alikes. It’s sort of similar to Will Lee’s Fab Faux out of New York. And not too dissimilar from my other band, Deacon Blues, where we have 11 Grammy winners and several top-level studios musicians doing what Steely Dan did on record – but we’re doing it live on-stage. There’s a natural symbiotic relationship between The Beatles and Steely Dan: Both stopped touring early in their careers and were together as a studio band concentrating on innovation for almost as many years (if not more) as they toured. Very few bands can make that claim (with Alan Parson’s being an admirable exception). I love that John Lennon called Steely Dan “The Beatles of the ’70s.” Catch the symmetry!

And regarding our mini-orchestra, we have our Kaleidoscope Strings of violin, viola, and cello, together with our Revolution Horns of a trumpet, piccolo trumpet, saxophone, and trombone. They certainly make a joyful noise! All virtuosos on their respective instruments, I knew I wanted the real deal, like back in the day at Abbey Road where synthesizers had only just come out and were monophonic in that they could only play one note at a time. Yep, real players, and phenomenal ones at that – like back in London circa 1970. When you’re performing songs like “I Am The Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Eleanor Rigby,” Martha My Dear,” “Golden Slumbers,” or “A Day In The Life,” it makes a huge difference to be with the human element. It’s a must-have.

IE: Tell us about your “Abbey Road” colleagues who will be appearing at the City Winery show

SK: I’d love to. The whole idea of Abbey Road was born when a theatre that my various bands perform at regularly asked me if I would ever consider forming a salute to the Beatles. It intrigued me when I realized that you could do a sound-alike scenario and not have to be tied to a look-alike thing. It reminded me when a similar venue asked if Deacon Blues could morph into Talking Heads for a one-off performance three and half years ago, and that’s how Big Suit was born.

Anyway, keeping all that in mind, I began reaching out to like-minded Beatle fans to see who might be interested in pursuing this project with me. Many of my colleagues are virtuosic jazz musicians who I assumed might not be too interested in Beatle music per se. It’s not like there are a plethora of compound jazz chords floating around Beatles songs, although there are some exceptions. To my surprise, some of the most sought-after jazzers were super interested, mentioning that Beatle music is “sacred territory” – and it has to be done right; it has to feel right, with all the right sounds and all the right notes. I was even more intrigued. So fast forward a little, and City Winery contacted me with only about five-and-a-half weeks out with a date in October in mind. At that time, I was only about 70% through casting the project.

I started by calling my good friend Mr. Brian Farrell, with who I attended high school. A great bassist, he couldn’t free himself for the date in October, so I secured the talent of bass virtuoso Shawn Sommer (Maggie Speaks). Shawn has a real connection to the Beatles – and to McCartney specifically. Shawn played bass on a track for a group signed by Paul McCartney on Paul’s record label. As the story goes, when Paul came in months later to listen to the tracks the band he had signed, he decided that he wanted to put his own bass ideas on all the tracks on the album. When Paul got to the last song where Shawn had written the bass part and laid it down on the track, Shawn’s obvious nod to The Beatles so impressed McCartney – with Shawn’s very “Beatlesque” bass motifs (a la Sir Paul) so took McCartney to the Beatles, that Paul learned Shawn’s original part and recorded it, note for note, onto that album! So at one moment in time, Shawn and Paul were on the same album together! That’s pretty cool. My next call was to my good friend Derrick “Suede” Stout, who is super-talented and has a huge Beatles vibe about him. He was unavailable for this debut performance in October, but he may be available for subsequent gigs.

Then I got a fundamental break with my sort of ‘partner in crime’ in this thing. He is a tremendously talented gentleman with more charisma in his little finger than I’ve seen and many a musician in quite some time – and his name is Tommi Zender. Tommi is an excellent singer-songwriter-guitarist in his own right and also happens to be one of the most popular guitar instructors at the Old Town School of Folk Music. And coincidentally, he also teaches a Beatles class there. His name kept coming up as a recommendation from many of my colleagues that I respect, so I approached him, and I’m glad I did. He’s in for the debut; Tommi and I have been busy little bees conjuring up a bunch of Beatle surprises.

Chris “Bean” Weng is the well-known singing drummer in the Eagles’ tribute band, Heartache Tonight. So Bean has the Don Henley role. I needed a drummer who could sing, so I figured having him on Beatles harmony would be a no-brainer, and his drumming style couldn’t be a more perfect fit for the band.

We have the one and only Danny Bauer, the new wunderkind in Chicago who is enormously talented and quite the comedian on keyboards and sound effects, and Eggboy! (ed. Note – those intrigued by ‘Eggboy’ can ask Danny about it at an Abbey Road show sometime).

I also have a connection to Sir Paul. I wrote a choral arrangement of McCartney’s song Freedom that he wrote for 9/11 for the high school choir I direct (this was during the time when I was writing arrangements for Jon Anderson and Steve Howe of YES when they had my choir perform with them on-stage at the Chicago Theatre and Allstate Arena). Through Paul’s publicist, the recording of my arrangement of Freedom featuring my teenage students along with myself on guitar and Cash Michaels (from Deacon Blues) on saxophone ended up being used for a charity event for post-9/11 Firefighters and their families. Our version of the song was broadcast on New York radio was chosen after Paul heard the recording and loved it. The song was featured on WXRT Chicago Radio’s” Breakfast with the Beatles” – the long-standing Sunday morning staple hosted by award-winning ‘XRT Radio Personality Terri Hemmert.

So that’s the five of us that form the core of Abbey Road. The rest of the group resides in a mini-orchestra that features Chuck Parrish, Tim Bales, Dave Katz, John Bowes, Cash Michaels, Henry Salgado, and Rich Lapka in the brass and woodwind section; with Olya Prohorova, Eugene Kaler, Dessi Nenova, Emi Tanabe, and Emma Lyn in the string section. Grammy winners, recording, and guest artists include Paul Wertico, Corky Siegel, Ben Lewis, Paul Mutzabaugh, Larry Beers, Jo Ann Daugherty, Heath Chappell, Kent Bredrup, Drew Bredrup, Thomas Linsk, Guy Jeanes, and several others.

Appearing at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago on Saturday, October 23 at 8 PM.

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