Review: Beatles’ ‘White Album’ revisited for autism benefit

Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson at Beatles White Album benefit
Susan Cowsill, left, and Vicki Peterson of the Bangles perform “Julia” during a complete performance of the Beatles’ “White Album” on Saturday during a benefit concert for the Autism Think Tank.
(Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times)

There was something peculiarly endearing about an audience of pop music geeks cheering the details of Saturday night’s sold-out benefit performance of the Beatles’ “White Album” in its entirety at Glendale’s Alex Theatre.

Where else would you hear cheers for the sound of one man’s Oxford shoe tapping against a woodblock, bird chirps, the sound of a jet airliner coming in for a landing or a standing ovation for a live re-creation of one of the oddest sonic conglomerations ever committed to tape, the infamous “Revolution 9”?




An earlier edition of this post identified the show’s musical director as John Laufer. He is Rob Laufer.


The assembly of musical disciples of the Fab Four that took on the group’s most expansive album extended well beyond the evening’s core group of L.A.-based musicians, including Vicki and Debbi Peterson of the Bangles, singer-songwriters Syd Straw and Cindy Lee Berryhill, Paisley Underground band the Three O’Clock, singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Barton’s indie rock band Translator, pop duo That Dog, actor-musician Bill Mumy and singer-multi-instrumentalist Damon Fox.

Far-flung guests such as XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, Fairport Convention co-founder Iain Matthews, siblings Susan and John Cowsill of the Cowsills family band, U.K. singer Christine Collister, Fountains of Wayne co-founder Chris Collingwood and former Spooky Tooth singer-songwriter Gary Wright (and George Harrison collaborator) and Dramarama frontman John Easdale took turns at the mike on the journey through the Beatles’ most eclectic album.


It’s the fourth benefit in recent years organized by L.A. music enthusiast Paul Rock, whose son, Jake, is severely autistic and led him to resurrect the benefit he’d organized in the ‘90s and early 2000s before becoming a parent, this time to generate awareness and money for the Autism Think Tank. Think Tank executive Sheri Marino prefaced the concert by saying that the shows had generated close to $100,000 for the organization, including expected proceeds from Saturday’s event, which also featured a silent auction of various Beatles and other rock-related items.

“Breakfast With the Beatles” host Chris Carter made the introductions and provided between-song anecdotes about each track from the double album, whose official title is “The Beatles,” but which is commonly referred to as the “White Album” for its blank white cover. It is the biggest-selling album in the group’s catalog, having been certified by the Recording Industry Assn. of America with U.S. sales of more than 19 million copies since its release in 1968, placing it at No. 10 on the RIAA’s list of all-time bestselling albums.

Collingwood got things rolling, diving into the album’s opening track, “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” a subversive (for the time) nod to the sunny Beach Boys sound as if it were being served up by a scrappy band of Soviet rockers.

Among the evening’s numerous highlights: a sweet vocal trio rendition of John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” from Vicki Peterson, John Cowsill and Mumy; Wright’s passion-filled reading of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; musical director Rob Laufer’s solo version of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” (for which percussionist and vocal group director Nelson Bragg tapped the aforementioned shoe to keep the beat, in place of McCartney’s miked toe-tapping from the record); a rollicking run-through of Ringo Starr’s “Don’t Pass Me By” by Starr’s friend Keith Allison of Paul Revere & the Raiders; Susan Cowsill and Peterson’s poignant duet on “Julia”; a knockout vocal by North Carolina singer Skylar Gudasz on Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long” and Berryhill’s spirited falsetto-laced treatment of “Revolution 1.”

Soloists and the band were supplemented by a string section on some songs, a horn section on others, and by both on a few. Background vocals arranged by Bragg were meticulously spot-on.

The re-creation of “Revolution 9” also represented a wondrous elevation of the whole notion of pop music geekdom.

Multi-instrumentalist, DJ and sonic experimentalist Darian Sahanaja, who also is a member of the Brian Wilson Band, re-created the various tape loops and special effects the Beatles and producer George Martin cobbled together in the studio for the 8-minute and 22-second sonic collage. That track, for which 99.9% of listeners hit the “skip” button when it rolls around on the album, exemplified how the Beatles were helping expand the parameters of what was possible in pop music, unfettered by limitations of anything that ever would need to be performed live.

In front of a giant illuminated white sphere that looked straight out of the creepy late-‘60s sci-fi series “The Prisoner,” Jim Mills and Heidi Servey, with piano played live by Debbie Shair, triggered the various effects live, using technology far beyond what was available to the Beatles in 1968.


If performing all 30 of the “White Album’s” tracks wasn’t enough in and of itself -- it’s been done by others such as the Fab Faux -- that part of the evening was followed by five encores: Harrison’s “Not Guilty” (a song that didn’t make the cut for the album), the amped-up single arrangement of “Revolution,” “Hey Bulldog,” “Lady Madonna” and the all hands-on-deck finale for “Hey Jude,” led by Collister with her deliciously dusky low alto vocals.

A splendid time was indeed had by all.

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter for pop music coverage

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