Next Friday and Saturday, Sept. 29-30, a rare two-night performance at the Raven will explore the music of one of the most significant songwriters of the last 60 years, in a multimedia show with live music, called “Stroll Down Penny Lane.”
The production is the creation of Joe Anastasi, a musician by night and a forensic economist by day, who lives in the East Bay neighborhood of Piedmont. He’s been working on the project—a musical journey through the life of Paul McCartney, from his days with the Beatles to well into the 21st century—for over a decade.
Playing with four other musicians, the show encompasses both a wide span of time and a wide range of the prodigious songwriter’s work, though the emphasis is on the ballad—a song form at which McCartney excels, says Anastasi. A series of video presentations unfurls to a soundtrack of McCartney music, creating a dreamlike experience of one man’s talent.
The challenge lies in making it all work dramatically, and in keeping the live band in complete sync with the “music videos” that comprise the show. The way that it all comes together makes perfect sense.
The Click Track
“My epiphany really came when we were doing some recordings of the music of the Beatles, or of Paul McCartney,” Anastasi said. “And in doing that, I became introduced to the notion of a click track.” At its most basic level, a click track is a metronome, produced by a computer, that is fed to each musician through headphones so that everyone stays in sync with the beat.
But with the digital revolution taking over not only music but also video production, Anastasi realized he could have a live band playing with a recorded video with click “cues” keeping the music synched, even when the musicians couldn’t see the screen behind them.
“So, I would write a screenplay for a film treatment for the story of a song, then create the film to tell a story. We’re presenting essentially a silent film, but its imagery is being presented while we’re playing,” he said. “And I know for certain that the storytelling is going to be exactly where I want it when we’re performing the song.”
Once he had the technology down, he said the audience itself became part of the performance. “I realized that the audience then becomes part of the show, because we’re invoking nostalgic memories—their memories of when they were young or younger, whether it was in the ’60s or ’70s or the ’80s,” he said. “We’re telling stories about things that they remember, and we’re evoking their memories while telling the stories about the song.”
The show is performed each night live by the five musicians, with Anastasi on rhythm guitar; Mike Sugar on bass, a crucial instrument in recreating McCartney’s music; a German lead guitarist named only Winter; Matt Twain on keyboard instruments; and Mark Abbot on drums. Anastasi himself takes lead vocals on the songs, emulating McCarney’s own diverse song stylings.
“Many of the Beatles tribute bands will be focused on Beatles music. This is different, in the sense that it’s focused on the music of Paul McCartney,” Anastasi said. “Paul has written 500 songs, so there’s a lot of material to mine in terms of presenting the story arc of his life and his music.”
The video presentations build on the place the songs have in McCartney’s own story, sometimes exploring the musical structure, sometimes the biographical elements and sometimes the social context of the times in which they were each created. And it’s not all Beatles music, either; in fact, less than half is. “The rest of it is, you know, from his solo career or from the period with Wings,” Anastasi said.
In at least one instance, it’s not even a McCartney song at the heart of the story. Guitarist Carl Perkins came to stay with McCartney in England to work on an album in the early 1980s and one night found himself troubled by a recurring phrase, “Hello old friend.” He got up, wrote a song and performed it for McCartney.
McCartney left the room in tears. It seemed the last time he saw John Lennon, his fellow Beatle called him “My old friend.” McCartney felt it was Lennon sending a message from the other side.
“You could focus on the music of Prince or of Elvis,” Anastasi said. “There’s all kinds of artists who could be subject to a similar focus.” Still, it’s a rich lode of genius that one mines in focusing on McCartney.
But Anastasi doesn’t think he’s the one to develop a Stroll Through Paisley Park or Graceland. “It’s been such a deep dive, and it’s been so many years of research invested in this,” he said. “I don’t have the bandwidth to do another.”
Other members of the group, including Mike Sugar with recording and Matt Twain with video editing, assist him with the technical aspects of the show, including video production and recording. The entire show integrates with the music, including stage lighting and live cameras recording the musicians and, at times, the audience itself.
“If we have stage effects where there’s going to be other sounds or lights or fog or this or that, they’re all queued, as well, through the same software program,” a macOS software called QLab, Anastasi said. “The world is so open now, with the ability that one has because of what computer memory storage and software will afford you.”
“You know,” he added, “it’s … really quite remarkable, because I remember the days when these things did not exist.”
Including the click track itself. The Beatles themselves were recorded before click tracks were widely used, if not invented. But they had a secret weapon: Ringo Starr.
It’s widely reported that Starr has never used a click track and rebuffs engineers who want him to play to one. His All-Starr Band guitarist, Steve Lukather, says that during sessions Starr would proudly proclaim, “I am the click track!”
And none better.
“Stroll Down Penny Lane” plays Friday Sept. 29 and Saturday Sept. 30, at 7:30pm at the Raven Theater, 115 North St. Tickets are $45, available at raventheater.org.