Heartfelt tribute lets McCartney's genius be

As much as I adore The Beatles, the idea of going to a Paul McCartney tribute concert, even one with a symphony, didn't exactly fill me with excitement.

After all, the gems of the John Lennon/McCartney catalog have been covered countless times and interpreted in many different ways — I'm sure you can even find an album of Beatles songs played on the didgeridoo, if you look hard enough — and even with songs as wonderful and timeless as these, the idea of hearing them covered yet again can seem tiresome.

Fortunately, "(A Tribute to) Paul McCartney & the American Hero," the opener of the Pacific Symphony's 2011-12 pops season, did justice to the masterful songcraft of McCartney's work by simply being faithful to the originals — or "letting them be," to paraphrase the man of honor. It also certainly helped that Beatles tribute band veteran Tony Kishman, a visual and vocal dead ringer for Macca, was the frontman who helped bring these classics to life.

Inspired by McCartney's organization of The Concert for New York City in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, this three-night series of concerts over Veterans Day weekend touted that it would celebrate "freedom, heroes and the enduring power of song."

It fulfilled its patriotic duty on those counts, right from the moment four Marine Color Guard members caught me off-guard by shouting from behind, "Hut, one, two, three, four!" and marching down the aisle to the stage of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

The opening concert of the series on Nov. 10 began with the Pacific Symphony performing a number of World War II-era standards sung by veteran jazz vocalist Sue Raney, along with quintessentially American pieces such as "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Raney seemed very much at home with the symphonic backdrop ably led by principal pops conductor Richard Kaufman. Working with a set list that alternated between ballads such as "I'll Walk Alone" and upbeat tunes such as "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)," Raney handled the swing 'n strings with professional aplomb, and her voice remained as supple as ever.

After intermission, the Pacific Symphony perfectly set up Kishman's entrance with the surging and swirling strings that memorably punctuate "A Day in the Life," the concluding track on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Kishman, getting by with a little help from his friends Jim Owen (guitar and piano), John Merjave (guitar) and Chris Camilleri (drums), passionately and faithfully performed a variety of Beatles and McCartney solo classics, including "Hello Goodbye," "Jet" and "Hey Jude."

This dedication even extended to minor touches such as the use of a mini-bullhorn for a brief vocal part on "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," and Kishman committed himself to capturing McCartney's nakedly earnest essence, right down to the use of Paul's violin-shaped Höfner bass and the accurate replication of his Liverpudlian accent even while speaking.

True, hardcore Beatles fans could have nitpicked that performing "The Long and Winding Road" with the full symphony backing as heard on "Let It Be" wouldn't have been the best tribute to McCartney, even though it's the version most people recognize (producer Phil Spector originally dubbed the strings onto the track without the Beatles' permission, and McCartney wasn't happy about it).

And maybe "Live and Let Die," as amazing as it is, was a bit of an unfortunate song choice for a concert paying tribute to America's veterans — not to mention that this portion of the concert was titled "Live and Let Die: A Symphonic Tribute to Paul McCartney."

Still, McCartney's masterpieces were joyfully and accurately replicated, with symphonic touches only (and wisely) used to the same degree they were used on the original songs. For instance, only a small portion of the symphony's string section contributed to "Yesterday."

And the fact that the pre-encore set list fittingly concluded with "Golden Slumbers"/"Carry That Weight"/"The End" (the final three songs on the concluding medley of "Abbey Road") showed that Kishman and company didn't just have singles in mind for this tribute.

The evening concluded with "Can't Buy Me Love" as more than a few symphony members informally sang along even though they didn't have microphones — a testament to the contagious joy of McCartney's work.

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