If you’ve never been to an UnderCover Presents concert, here’s how it works. UnderCover co-founder, producer and guiding spirit Lyz Luke and a guest music director select a beloved album and recruit a far-flung roster of Bay Area artists to reimagine one track each (songs that are also recorded and released on an UnderCover album). When everything clicks, and more often than not it does, the results are riveting, like Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy’s taut version of “Superstar” from the recent UnderCover production of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
On Saturday, UnderCover Presents marks the 50th anniversary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the UC Theatre with a predictably unpredictable roster of 13 Bay Area ensembles featuring more than 100 musicians under the direction of Joe Bagale (Friday’s scheduled concert was cancelled a few days ago). A jazz-steeped singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and made member of the Jazz Mafia who’s earned widespread respect with his work on ambitiously genre-blending projects like Adam Theis’s Brass, Bows and Beats: A Hip Hop Symphony,
Bagale spent two years on the road as keyboardist and lead vocalist with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, and he invested the funds he saved in a home studio, which is where he created the alter ego Otis McDonald. Commissioned by YouTube to write dozens of tracks for the site’s free audio library, his soul-stepped project has created music used, as of last year, in 3.5 million YouTube-posted videos with a jaw-dropping total of some 7.6 billion views.
Bagale’s vast web of musical connections make him an ideal UnderCover music director, and as a confirmed Beatles fanatic he was a natural to tackle Sgt. Pepper’s.
“I do an annual tribute to the Beatles in San Anselmo, Beatles in the Park, which I took over as musical director four years ago after it’d been running for a decade already,” he says. “Whenever a Jazz Mafia project needs a Beatles arrangement they say, you need to talk to Joe Bagale. I actually pitched a bunch of different albums to Lyz, Revolver and the White Album, but when she hit me up to do Sgt. Pepper’s I immediately said yes.”
This isn’t the first UnderCover project to hit Berkeley. Freight & Salvage has presented several UnderCover productions, including Dina Maccabee’s revelatory casting of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Karina Deniké’s playfully raucous Highway 61 Revisited, and Robert Shelton’s often breathtaking Graceland roundup. The UC’s expansive stage should help hasten the transitions between bands, which can drain the momentum from UnderCover shows, as one band will be setting up while another performs. Here are some thoughts from Bagale about the casting for each song.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by Electric Squeezebox Orchestra
When I signed to do this up ESO was the first group I approached. I thought they’d be a great ensemble to open. Saxophonist Mike Zilber wrote a fantastic instrumental arrangement that I think of like a prologue to a musical, and when Billy Shears gets introduced the show really takes off. We connect the first two songs so the whole show has an arc.
“With a Little Help from My Friends” by Jazz Mafia Accomplices
Jazz Mafia rapper Dublin has a similar timbre to his voice as Ringo. People don’t think of him as a singer as much as a rapper, but he’s such a melodic rapper. I encouraged him to put his thing on it, sing the song, but embellish it to show what you do. He’s a giant Beatles nut.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by Raz Kennedy
I had always envisioned an a cappella group on the show. The person I thought of was Raz, one of the greatest vocal directors and teachers around. I have a personal connection with him as he saved my voice back in 2008 when I had polyps. I went to Raz and he taught me to sing properly, and I didn’t need to have surgery. You never get to hear him singing up front. When I hit him up he jumped on “Lucy in the Sky.” He wrote a vocal jazz arrangement where he’s singing lead with nine female singers behind him.
Most of the bands are groups are bands I was already fans of, and wanted to feature but I wasn’t familiar with this group until Lyz brought them to my attention. I checked out their music and they’re a really cool indie rock group. Their albums were so badass, with a psychedelic aspect. The lead singer got back right away, saying we’re huge Beatles heads we’ve done Beatles tributes where we all dress up. The melody is intact but they totally reharmonized the whole song and gave it a kind of dark and anthemic feeling, like it can’t get much worse, sort of Radiohead meets Dr. Dog.
“Fixing a Hole” by Amendola Vs. Blades
I pitched it to them thinking they might do some Afro-Cuban thing, and they played this burning uptempo instrumental funk. In the studio they knocked it out in the first take. They really milk the B section: “And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right” with Wil’s organ sounding “Everyday People.” He and Scott just killed it.
“She’s Leaving Home” by Nino Moschella
Nino was an artist I knew I wanted to nbe involved. We work together in Otis McDonald, and I play drums with him whenever he wants to play live. People need to hear his soul. He did this dreamy soul ballad version that didn’t change it up too much.
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” by Rohan Krishnamurthy
I wanted to make sure I had Indian music, but not on the obvious song. Lyz introduced me to Rohan and he’s one of the most incredible percussionists I’ve ever seen, trained in classical Indian music, but he also plays drum set. We got on the phone and found out we both went to the same college, Eastman, and know the same people. In fact, he was in talks with Eastman to put on a Sgt. Pepper’s tribute. He thought “Mr. Kite” would be fun, and came in with a trio with him on percussion Prasant Radhakrishnan on tenor sax (though it sounds like a bassoon), and Colin Hogan on Hammond organ. It’s the third instrumental on the album.
“Within You Without You” by The Hogan Brothers
I know the Hogan brothers are huge Beatles fans, and I thought this would be great for them. They went a totally different direction, Colin Hogan on accordion evoking the drone of the tanpora or harmonium, Steve Hogan on bass guitar, Julian Hogan on drums, Charlie Gurke on baritone sax, and Moorea Dickason on vocals. She knocked my socks off, just left me awe struck. The arrangement is like prog rock, with all these meter modulations where she gets really loud then brings it down with so much air in her voice. I can’t believe her dynamic range. That’s a bit of a showstopper.
“When I’m Sixty-Four” by Sahba Aminikia
I got hip to Sahba through the Kronos Quartet stuff he did and Lyz brought him up to me. He was a harder one to place. He got back immediately about “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which he arranged for string quartet and a singer from Iran, Mina Momeni. He’s collaborated with her again and again, always on the Internet, and this seemed like a great opportunity to show her to the world. In the concert, we’re playing a video of her doing her take used on the record while the quartet performs.
“Lovely Rita” by Kendra McKinley
When you get together with UnderCover people you bring a list, and Lyz brings a list. They pitched Kendra at the first meeting three months ago and I wasn’t aware of her work. Watching her awesome videos I really enjoyed how animated she was in performance. She creates these characters in the way she delivers her songs, and her band sounds great. She was down to do “Lovely Rita.” She didn’t change the form, but added this kind of swing and swagger, drawing inspiration from D’Angelo’s “Back to the Future (Part II). She added these amazing three-part harmonies in the place of the horn parts.
“Good Morning” by Soltrón
This is one of the record’s funkier tunes. I wanted a really happening salsa group, or grooving Latin jazz, and they’re making these amazingly progressive Afro-Cuban tunes on their own. It’s going to get everybody up dancing. They made it their own and even do a verse in Spanish. In the play back in the studio, they were all dancing in sync. It’s a brotherhood, and there’s a great vibe in the band.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” by Otis McDonald, Rohan Krishnamurthy, Non Stop Bhangra, and Awesöme Orchestra Collective
“A Day in the Life” by Otis McDonald featuring Awesöme Orchestra
We wanted to get Nonstop Bhangra, an amazing dance troupe, but not a band. I knew I’d do “A Day” and thought I’ll arrange it for my band with a bhangra beat. Otis is funk/hip hop, and I started cutting up bhangra loops with dhol drum. I got Rohan involved on percussion. I came up with this really funky arrangement, heavy analog synth, horns inspired by Red Baarat (who I went to Eastman with). Wanted to make it a big party that segues into “A Day in the Life.” I always loved Donny Hathaway’s “Jealous Guy.” I want to make it funky and gospelly, but not lose the tune too much, so I made it a soul ballad, but in B section the tempo picks up and gets into a Motown thing. I tried to get that last chord several different ways. I have the Abbey Road keyboard bundle, and you can pull up all the pianos they used on the album. It’s a bunch of people playing an E major chord, and as the chord was dying out the engineer was turning up the faders. I put my Otis production on it, adding flutter in the tape.