Homer musicians tackle Beatles' 'White Album' for anniversary concert

Matt Sullivan
Photo by John Bushell

Here's a birthday you might have missed: The Beatles' self-titled ninth album, more commonly called "The White Album," turned 45 years old in November. Steve Collins, a member of Homer's Los Holy Santos Gang, had been toying with the idea of a big collaboration involving as many of the musicians in Homer as he could muster. Around August or September, he saw something about the upcoming anniversary, so he put two and two together and booked a show at Alice's Champagne Palace with the plan of playing the double-album from beginning to end.

"It just seemed like such a good collection of songs; it's not just a single album," explained Collins. "It's not a big deal to learn 10 or 12 songs or whatever, but a 30-song project is much more formidable and more deserving of your time if you're going to a big band together like that."

The idea was to replicate the album's sprawling 93 minutes - strings, brass, synthesizers and all - as faithfully as possible, something the Beatles never intended to do (the band stopped touring before the release of "Revolver" in '66).

The band Collins recruited calls itself the Mothers Superior, a 14-person ensemble that includes members of Los Holy Santos Gang, the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra and others. "When I sat down and started looking song by song at the instrumentation for everything, immediately I thought, 'I really bit off more than I can chew,'" he said.

"The White Album" is one of the Beatles' most scattered collections, an album released at the height of the band's powers but also at the point when its members were becoming less and less interested in playing together. It's the work of four songwriters whose voices were becoming more distinct, producing one of the band's most recognizable ballads ("Blackbird"), arguably the first metal song ever ("Helter Skelter"), hints of country/Western ("Rocky Raccoon") and an avant-garde head-scratcher ("Revolution 9").

Alice's sold out that night in November, so now the Mothers Superior are bringing the show to Anchorage.

"We went for every little detail we could," said John Bushell, one of the musicians recruited by Collins who also performs solo piano concerts across the state under the name Johnny B. Some of those details were as nuanced as mapping the beats on which the tambourine should land. Others were figuring out how the heck to pull off the almost nine minutes of nearly formless sound collage that is "Revolution 9."

"I had a score for that, and it was pretty much impossible to try to match up what was happening with the score versus all the samples," said Collins. The band came up with a plan for "Revolution 9" the day before the Homer show: Collins made a loose map of the song, noting 20 or 30 points where some prominent noise or vocal comes into play. "We all set a stopwatch at the same time and we go for 8-and-a-half minutes."

"Yellow Submarine" and "Abbey Road" turn 45 next year, but Collins doesn't anticipate the Mothers Superior will tackle either of those records. "To me, part of the specialness of the project is having it be a one-off."

He's open to this collaboration taking on a life of its own, though. "I would love to keep working with some of the orchestra players because it's kind of mind-expanding for us rock guys who just play by ear," he said. "To mash those worlds together I think is really cool for both sets of people."

By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent