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Rain: How to form the ultimate Beatles tribute band

Want to form the ultimate Beatles tribute band? You've got your work cut out for you if you want to top Rain, the four musicians who are currently bringing the spirit, the look, and more importantly (and impressively), the music of The Beatles to life nightly at New York's Neil Simon Theatre.

Total sonic accuracy is the key to Rain's success, along with uncanny costuming and staging (and that includes are-they-the-real-thing? replicas of the instruments the Fab Four played). Over the course of 30 songs, from I Want To Hold Your Hand to The End, Rain, which consists of Steve Landes (John Lennon), Joey Curatolo (a dead ringer for Paul McCartney, both on stage and off), Joe Bithorn (George Harrison) and Ralph Castelli (Ringo Starr) present a generous sampling of The Beatles' mind-blowing canon with jaw-dropping authority. From guitar licks to drum fills to bass runs - they're all rendered in a manner that will have even the most discerning Bealtemaniacs leaping from their seats.

To say nothing of the vocals, which these guys have down to a staggering degree of authenticity. You want to play The Beatles' music the way it was meant to be played? Make no mistake: Rain are the band to study.

Wait...could it be? Nope, it's Rain, the ultimate Beatles tribute band, on stage at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. © Cylla von Tiedemann

All of the performers in Rain put in time in various incarnations of Beatlemania, the late '70s forerunner to most 'tribute shows,' Beatles and otherwise. But as Steve Landes says, "Beatlemania placed more of an emphasis on the show, the spectacle, the multi-media thing, whereas what we do in Rain is focus on the music first. Sure, we wear the costumes and wigs, and we take you back to Shea Stadium and the Apple Rooftop, but we'd be nowhere if we couldn't play these songs. That's really what we're all about. We've toured and played all over the world without such elaborate production, and at the end of the day it comes down to one thing: Can we play this music with the love and care that it deserves?"

Having witnessed Rain during their opening week on Broadway and being suitably impressed - OK, we were flat-out bowled over - MusicRadar sat down for an interview with the group's members. We were also treated to their soundcheck (see the above video), during which they performed selections not in the Broadway setlist. Like we said, these guys know their stuff.

Now, you were all members of Beatlemania. But when did the actual four of you come together, as it were, as Rain?

Steve Landes (John): "I was the last to join in 1998, so we've all been together now for 12 years."

Longer than the actual Beatles were together - The Beatles with Ringo, that is.

Landes: "That's right. Well, you find a good group, you stick with it, you know? However, the other three were together with another John Lennon for, what…?" [looks to the other three]

Ralph Castelli (Ringo): "Forty-seven years!" [everybody laughs]

Joey Curatolo (Paul): "The mid- to late '80s, I believe. But who's counting?"

They sure look like John Lennon's Rickenbacker 325s. Although we know he didn't use Boss pedals. © Joe Bosso

Tell me how Rain came about, the way it went from Beatlemania to what you're doing now.

Joe Bithorn (George): "They're two different shows, really. Rain isn't an offshoot from Beatlemania, as some people might think. Beatlemania had unlimited lookalikes and soundalikes who were hired, but it was more of a multi-media thing."

Curatolo: "The nucleus of what we do, what brought us all together, was the music. First and foremost, it was the sound of The Beatles. From that, everything else evolved, and yes, we have multi-media as well, so we can bring you in and make you feel as if you're in the time and place when The Beatles played. Over time, it's spawned other musicians who perform as Rain. But they're handpicked by us. We have to make sure they have the goods."

So what you're saying is, I have a shot at being Ringo!

Castelli: "You might. [laughs] You have to put up with a lot of grief from the other guys, though." [everybody laughs]

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that, for millions of musicians, divining the secrets of The Beatles' music has bordered on obsession for decades now.

Landes: "We still obsess over it."

You're all pretty accurate, though. Of all the tribute bands I've seen, you nail it.

Bithorn: "Thank you. The main thing I can say to that is, your ears have to be so huge within the context of this show. Whether we're listening to a part we're playing ourselves or we're absorbing what the rest of the band is doing on stage, our radar is constantly on. In those ways, this is almost like a classical endeavor. Most classical musicians know the music they play, but they'll refer to the transcribed music in front of them. We can all read music, but we certainly can't have charts in front of us.

"So, like I said, to capture the essence of what The Beatles did in the studio, we have to turn our ears way up. We've got to listen to the parts bit by bit; we have to really break it down. It's meticulous, but we love it, so it's fun too!" [laughs]

Ralph, let me ask you how you tackle some of Ringo's parts. As we know, when The Beatles made their first couple of records, they were pretty much doing their Cavern Club set. Pretty soon, though, overdubs started happening.

Castelli: "Totally. What I find is, I have to pick the highlights. Like on the song I'm Happy Just To Dance With You, Ringo's rack toms are overdubbed, but they're crucial to the overall feel of the tune, so I have to play them - the song screams out for them. What I do there is, I play the hi-hat with my left hand and I reach for the rack tom with my right. Now, Ringo is left-handed, but he plays righty, whereas I'm right-handed, trying to play a left-handed style. So I incorporate both worlds as best I can."

But because of those differences, are there still elements of his playing that elude you?

Castelli: "There are. Ringo even referred to what he did as playing 'those funny drum rolls.' He would lead to the left, and his hands would get crossed over a bit. I do some of the fills left, and I'll end up somewhere right. [laughs] It's almost like subdivisions. It's difficult, and it's a challenge night after night. I'm always learning. So much of the time, I think, How did Ringo play that and wind up there? I have to remind myself that he went with his left hand."

Bithorn: "Ralph's great talent is, he's 'handbidextrous.'" [everybody laughs]

Curatolo: "And he sings on time too, which is another challenge."

Castelli: "I think I sing left-handed!" [laughs]

However, Joey, in the role of Paul, you portray him right-handed on stage.

Curatolo: "That's right. I'll be honest, I tried at first to switch over and play left-handed. It was there to some degree, but I didn't have the right finesse. I wasn't getting every note that Paul played on the records. To me, that's way more important than the look. I want to hit every single note that Paul played. So, like Ralph says, we sing left-handed! [all laugh]

"To the purist, it might detract, and I can understand that - Paul on stage as a lefty was part of the look of The Beatles. But I wouldn't want the music to suffer. A lot of people can play Paul's parts in a very rudimentary fashion. That's not what this is about. Each one of us faithfully reproduces what each Beatle did on those records. I wouldn't want to not hold up my musical end just for one visual element."

Steve Landes plays a couple of Epiphone 'Inspired by John Lennon' Casino reissues, the sunburst '65 and the '68 Revolution model (with sunburst finished removed). © Joe Bosso

And I imagine on the acoustic songs where Paul plays guitar, playing lefty would be extremely difficult.

Curatolo: "You know it. You can get by on some of the bass parts - not all of them, because he was quite fluid on the bass - but yeah, the guitar stuff would be rough."

Extremely rough, I would think.

Curatolo: "It is! But, you know, we pour over the music like the most intense Beatleologists around. We're in the groove of the vinyl."

You do change a few other musical things around a bit, though. Joe, I noticed that you play the guitar solo to While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which was played on record by Eric Clapton. Also, in The End, you do all the parts to the three-way guitar jam.

Bithorn: "That's right. In The End, it was Paul-John-George, then Paul-John-George and so on. For that, each pickup on my Strat is getting a shot."

Landes: "Those pickups should get featured billing on the marquee!" [laughs]

Bithorn: "That's a theatrical compromise, I guess. We do have a guy playing keyboards for some things, and I guess he could come out and play the bass, but then we'd have to bring another guitar amp and extra pedals out there…Sometimes, as we said, you have to do what's right for the music. The purists like you understand that they traded off, but a lot of people in the audience don't know. 'What are they doing? Why are they all playing guitar?' As long as we're playing the music accurately, that's what really matters.

What would you say to all of the musicians out there who want to play the music of The Beatles the way you do? Or to musicians who want to form their own Beatles tribute bands - what advice do you have for them?

Bithorn: "You have to start with your vocals. Because first and foremost, and this gets overlooked a lot, The Beatles were a vocal band, and a truly great one. Those lead vocals and harmonies are impeccable. Nobody existed on the same level as they did as singers. So you have to find guys who really have the chops and can really commit to singing in harmony. You have to get those voices to blend together as if you're family. Once you commit to doing that, if you want to have a truly great Beatles tribute band, you're going to find that the field of candidates narrows dramatically."

It took John, Paul and George years to perfect that vocal blend. How long did it take you?

Landes: "We're still working on it, really. It's a constant work in progress. Every day I find some new facet or nuance to what John did, and I work on it religiously."

Bithorn: "The same holds true for their instrumentation. I've got a sitar backstage, and I'm working on incorporating it into the set. Not an easy instrument at all. The intonation…it's gotta be right there. And even if I don't work the sitar into the show, I still want to know how to play it. The thirst for musical knowledge never ends."

You're very faithful to the instruments The Beatles played: I see the Rickenbacker 325s, the Epiphone Casinos, the Hofner bass, the Gretsches. Although I do see some modifications that The Beatles didn't have, like a MIDI controller on the 'Rocky' Strat.

Bithorn: "That's because I'm playing string parts with that. It works better than bringing out string players."

Landes: "I actually did the psychedelic paint job on that Strat. Pretty good, huh?"

It's picture-perfect.

Bithorn: "Both my Strats are set up with the synth pickups. For us, you have to do that. Even though we have a keyboard player, it fattens the sound up using the synth guitar. You get more bang for the buck."

Joe Bithorn's Roland MIDI-equipped 'Rocky' Strat (with psychedelic paint job by Steve Landes) next to his Rickenbacker 360/12 reissue. © Joe Bosso

Is there a yin-yang aspect to what you do? You're presenting The Beatles visually, through all of their phases and eras. You have their mannerisms, their attitudes…Do you feel like actors in addition to being musicians?

Curatolo: "We're fans. We're fans of The Beatles. The passion we feel…See, they taught us our craft. The music they gave us is something we love so much, I can barely put it into words. To be able to portray them on stage, it's an honor. We don't feel like actors, really. We're giving back to them."

Landes: "Learning the music is one side to it. But when you study the men, when you get inside their heads, that brings out a whole new aspect to what we do. Take John Lennon: He's a rock 'n' roll guy. That's what he was always all about. Even when he did the psychedelic stuff and the later music he did, he was always coming at it as a rocker.

"A lot of the reasons why John would play the guitar a certain way come from the kind of person that he was, that anti-establishment thing he had going on. He stood with his legs apart, like he was ready to take on all comers. So, yes, from an acting standpoint, you have to study the man, and that gives you a bigger window to the music. It all goes hand-in-hand."

Is there a song in The Beatles' catalogue that you haven't quite figured out?

Landes: "I think we've done all of them. For this show, we do 30 songs. But in the time we've been together, we've pretty much done the whole lot, even the bootleg stuff. That used to be our strong point, that we would do anything and everything."

Curatolo: "In the past, when we weren't on Broadway, we'd take requests. People love that. They shout out songs, and we do them. Stump the band? Hey, we're game!" [laughs]

Castelli: "Maybe we should put a big wheel on stage and give it a spin. Hey, you wanna hear Flying? Here you go! That would work for Vegas." [laughs]

Has either Paul or Ringo come to see you?

Rain hang out before soundcheck. From left: Joe Bithorn (George), Joey Curatolo (Paul), Steve Landes (John) and Ralph Castelli (Ringo). © Joe Bosso

Landes: "They haven't. But a lot of people from The Beatles' community have, and they've been very supportive."

Let me ask you individually, what's been the biggest musical challenge for doing what you do? Steve, we'll start with you.

Landes: "The vocals. John Lennon is very underrated as a singer. I think Rolling Stone put him in their Top 10 as one of the greatest singers ever. His voice, as The Beatles progressed in their eight years of recording, changed so much. He went from that throaty, raspy rock 'n' roll singer to a more quiet, introspective vocalist. I'm thinking of A Day In The Life and Julia…But he could change right back and do Yer Blues and Revolution.

"He was amazing. He could go from one extreme to the other, and you'd believe his every word. And I have to do that all in the space of one show and two hours. One minute I'm screaming my lungs out on Twist And Shout, and then I'm doing A Day In The Life a short time later. He was so underrated."

Ralph, how about you?

Castelli: "For me, it's the experimentation that Ringo did. When you get to Rubber Soul and Revolver, he was really evolving into a true artist on the drums. He did a lot of overdubs and put the cloths on the kit, as we all know. And not just the cloths, but the dampness you hear is from his pack of cigarettes on the snare - he might not have known it, but he was changing the way drums sounded. To make that come alive night after night, that's a challenge."

Joe, how about you when it comes to George?

Bithorn: "I'll tell you where George is really underrated, and that's in his slide playing. He was so lyrical and beautiful. Intonation-wise, when you play slide, you have to be right on the money. Unless you're playing blues where you can get away with a lot, you have to be spot-on. George was an astounding slide player. Then, as I said before, there's the vocals, and George was a wonderful singer. I'm always trying to get to that sweet spot in his voice."

And Joey, what's the biggest challenge for you Paul-wise?

Curatolo: "He was a jack-of-all-trades, so that's a big responsibility. Plus, he was sort of the spokesman for the group in many ways. He was the charmer. Having to uphold that position night after night is a lot of work, the physical stamina. And not to dwell on it, but the vocals. To bring what he did in the '60s alive for people and make it fresh, I really concentrate on that.

"Not to mention his bass playing. Being that he was a frustrated lead guitar player, he became so innovative as a bassist, right up there with guys like James Jamerson. Yeah, I work on that a lot. But you know what? As much work that goes into this, we have a great time. Every night, we're having a party up there. And it's fantastic to see so many people, young and not so young [laughs], come to this show and have a blast. That's what drives us. We're just trying to pay tribute to our heroes as best as we can."

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