As rock groups go, tribute bands are low on the totem pole. No record deals, no radio play, no respect from rock critics. Their fans, if they have any, tend to like them not for who they are, but for who they pretend to be.
The Fab Faux rise above their caste. The five members, who perform Beatles songs with the power and precision of a symphony orchestra, are appreciated in their own right as virtuoso musicians. They’ve been written up in Rolling Stone. They play classy venues like the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, and they charge premium prices for tickets.
But most importantly — they don’t try to pass themselves off as mop-topped lads from Liverpool.
“Only the Beatles are the Beatles,” explains Fab Faux co-founder Will Lee, the bass player in the house band for “Late Show With David Letterman.” “It’s not a pretend kind of thing. It’s honoring the music that changed pop music and the culture.”
Lee formed the Fab Faux in 1998 with Jimmy Vivino, the guitarist and band leader for Conan O’Brien’s late-night show, when both were living in the same Greenwich Village apartment building. Three studio aces — drummer Rich Pagano, guitarist Frank Agnello and keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli — round out the lineup. As for vocals? Everyone sings.
The Fab Faux’s mission is to perform Beatles tunes the way they sound on the band’s studio recordings, in particular the latter-day masterpieces that the Beatles never performed live. That’s a lot of material; the Beatles quit touring after an Aug. 29, 1966, concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, in part because it was becoming too hard to perform their complex repertoire with two guitars, bass and drums.
To get the sound right, the Fab Faux perform with a cellist, a violinist and a four-piece horn section, and they’ll bring on additional musicians if a song requires it. The famous trumpet part on “Penny Lane” could be approximated by a synthesizer, but when the Fab Faux perform the tune, they do it with a trumpet.
The musicians use the same types of instruments and amplifiers the Beatles themselves used in live and studio recordings, and drummer Pagano works with two kits on stage — one to match what Ringo Starr used in the early days, and one for the later years.
They’ll often dedicate an evening to covering an album such as “Magical Mystery Tour” or “Revolver,” then rip through a few classic Beatles rockers for an encore.
For their performance at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday night, the band members are going to do things a little different — no album, just a wide-ranging collection of Beatles songs. Lee says it will add an element of surprise, since the audience won’t know what’s coming up next.
Vivino wouldn’t divulge the set list except to say that “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” will be in the lineup, featuring his faithful rendition of the guitar solo that an uncredited Eric Clapton played on the original recording.
Early on, the band members invested countless hours to learn the secrets used to create the distinctive sounds and effects sprinkled throughout Beatles records — reading books, researching the Internet, even consulting EMI engineer Geoff Emerick, who won Grammy Awards for his work on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.”
“Like any orchestra, we want to do justice to the composers,” Vivino said on a break from “Conan” rehearsals at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank.
It’s not always easy. A song like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from “Revolver,” is filled with spacey effects and orchestral instruments, a daunting challenge for any band trying to perform it live.
“Within each song, there are so many little gems,” Lee said by phone from his home in Manhattan. “We dig deep and spelunk — deep into the caves where the details live.”
It’s this near-perfect live re-creation of lavishly produced Beatles songs that has earned the band a loyal following.
Julie Price McLean, a corporate public relations specialist in Ventura, says she has made the band’s annual Orpheum show for the last five years. She’ll be there again Saturday night.
“I’m absolutely not a tribute band person,” she said. “This is different because these guys don’t dress up and try to look like the Beatles. They are so respectful of the music, and they just want to share it.
“This is the only show or event I’ve done annually,” McLean added. “When I walk into the Orpheum, I look round and I go, ‘My people.’ It’s a little secret, this little gem.”
The Fab Faux perform 35 to 40 weekends a year, a schedule that’s especially grueling for Lee and Vivino with their regular nighttime TV gigs.
“We give a lot,” Vivino said. “I work four days a week, and then I’m on a red-eye 40 weekends a year.
“But I can’t think of anything better than this,” he added. “I don’t think going to the beach or going hiking, or going camping, beats playing Beatle music. It’s the best job in the world.”
The Fab Faux
Backed by the Hog’s Head Horns and Cream Tangerine Strings
Where: Orpheum Theatre, downtown Los Angeles
When: 8 pm Saturday
Tickets: $42-$123 from Ticketmaster