Fest for Beatles Fans Chicago 2015

In the “better late than never” department, herewith some notes about attending a day of #ChiFest15 — the first such I’d ever been to. My 16-year-old daughter accompanied me, and we met up with fellow Dullblogger Michael for part of the day. — Nancy Carr

Two Fest helpers — the one in the white hat and sunglasses looked unnervingly like Yoko from some angles

Events:  A lot, and quite varied. Most fell into one of the following categories: authors talking about their books, people with some affiliation with the Beatles talking (often about their books), and a grab bag of alternatives (sing along contests, a FABratory of Beatles-related science, and the Ashram, with meditation and yoga-themed happenings).

Merchandise: Less than I expected. The Fest itself runs a big store for the event, but apart from that there was only one large room with exhibitors. There were a few record vendors (the biggest being LA’s Rockaway Records), some authors selling and signing their books, and a booth featuring “thread-by-thread” recreations of Beatles stage wear. But this was one place where it was clear that the digital world has taken a big bite, given what those who’ve attended earlier Fests say about the number of merchants who used to come. Traffic was fairly constant in the room but not too heavy, and there were more people looking than buying.

Highlights

Louise Harrison’s talk. Billed as focusing on George’s spirituality, this was actually much more wide-ranging. Ms. Harrison sat on a standard-issue hotel conference room chair at the same level as the roomful of people listening to her, and her soft-spoken manner and the timbre of her voice were strongly reminiscent of her famous brother. It felt surreal to be so close to someone who had been so close to one of the Beatles—it gave me a kind of contact high. She was refreshingly willing to be frank in response to the audience’s questions. When one attendee asked if George and John had ever “cross-pollinated” spiritually, she replied that after the India experience “Yoko was giving John heroin because she wanted to control him.” She also said that she doesn’t have an online profile because “I don’t want to be that vulnerable,” which sounds eminently sensible. She’s now playing in a band called Liverpool Legends, which focuses on raising money to help schools have music programs.

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The young woman in green sang an amazing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

Beatles Sound-Alike Contest. I arrived too late to see much of this, but I did get to hear a version of “If Not For You” performed by someone who sounded like the son of George Harrison and Bob Dylan, a note-perfect “Blackbird,” and an impassioned “God.”

Chicago School of Rock. These dozen or so teenagers put on an exhilirating show on the “Apple Jam” stage, frequently rotating singers and players so the overall effect was more like a collage than a single performance. Particular standouts were “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,””Helter Skelter,” and, surprisingly, “Dig A Pony.” The two young women who sang the last song made me like it more than I ever have before, that’s for sure.

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Phil Angotti (on the right) and Casey McDonough on the Apple Jam stage

Phil Angotti and Friends. This was one of two performances by Chicago-area stalwart Phil Angotti and associates, with Saturday’s being McCartney-focused and Sunday’s Lennon-centric. The band had more playing time than they expected, and ended up doing a 22-song show. It was ragged around the edges at the end — clearly some songs hadn’t been rehearsed recently — but the energy more than made up for a few flubbed lyrics and notes. I’m an established admirer of Angotti’s work, and he’s one of the few singers I’ve heard who can sound similar to both Lennon and McCartney. “Jet,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “My Love,” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” were especially noteworthy in this show.

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Part of the lobby jam band

Impromptu jam bands. The best part of walking through the hotel was happening upon groups of people playing and singing Beatles songs together. The biggest such group took up residence in a corner of the lobby and wailed away all afternoon; they were still going strong when I had to leave. A constantly-changing crowd of people gathered around them, singing along and shouting requests. The sound was muddy, plenty of the crowd was off-key, and the band had trouble keeping songs together, but it was wonderful.

And, in the end . . . . I was drawn irresistibly by the live music, both staged and informal. Interesting as some of the other talks and events sounded, the music won out for me pretty much every time. Apart from Louise Harrison, the music is what I’ll remember.

Kid

Watching this kid get off the ground repeatedly during “Jet” was the pinnacle of my Fest experience

The School of Rock kids, the lobby jam band, a preschooler jumping with delight every time Phil Angotti screamed “JET!” Much as I enjoy talking, reading, and writing about the Beatles, the day was a potent reminder for me that it’s the music that set all these words in motion, and it’s the music that will last.

• • •

[OK, Nancy, since the original version of this post had the picture of that little boy just hanging off in space, the Universe clearly wants me to add my two cents here, rather than in the comments. TL;DR — it was a blast hanging with Nancy and daughter in the ozone-smelling confines of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. As ever, Beatle music makes any location home to me, and it was raining, which Nancy had to remind me was a entirely natural and even beneficial occurrence, and not some weird sign that God is displeased. I left after eight hours with ringing ears and a Sgt. Pepper coffeecup (now given to my neph). I was thoroughly glad I went, and Nancy and daughter (or as I called it, “Hey Dullblog LIVE“) part was so fun I have half a mind to see if we can’t gather a formal delegation for New York or Chicago next year; anybody who’s interested, use “Contact/Submit”…

The Fest Needs YOU

…Because, my dear Dullbloggers, the Fest seemed tired. In addition to the merchandise room — which was anemic for the very reason that Nancy mentioned (why schlep to a Fest when you have eBay on your phone?) –there was a peculiar preponderance of singalong, probably because it’s cheap to host and easy to stage. This troubles me. Singalong is nice, but it’s not enough to sustain a destination-based event, and it was the only place where people really seemed to be letting loose and having fun.
Though Nancy is unquestionably right about the primacy of the music, speaking personally I like the Beatles’ version of it. Maybe it’s because I live surrounded by street musicians, but past Angotti and his crew (Phil, we said we wanted to interview you — drop us a line!), it was pretty typical street-music. Which is to say: enjoyable, celebratory, well-played, but nothing worth getting on a jet air-ee-o-plane for. Maybe I’m being a snob. Nancy, tell me I’m being a snob.

President, Louise Harrison Appreciation Society

I also adored Louise Harrison — I became a recipient of the Harrison Hug, passed from George on his deathbed to Louise, and thence the world. Nancy and I will post on Liverpool Legends, which sounds like a very worthy project. And it was incredibly refreshing — thrilling almost — to hear someone that close to the Fabs themselves actually express opinions that didn’t sound like an Apple press release. Her comments were a reminder that this story we all love is one of people. Some of whom rubbed each other the wrong way.
But the Fest — and by extension Beatle fandom — seems to be in a post-LOVE doldrum, folks. Old people in t-shirts milling about, young people in t-shirts taking photos with their phones. What that Fest needed was more centrality — a Beatles movie, a Fest-only release of something, a couple of great A/V presentations, and lots and lots of smart, engaged Beatle fans. In other words, YOU! Onto 2016.–MG]



7 Comments

  1. Sandy wrote:

    I’m sad to say I’m just not that interested in Fest anymore. I went in the 70’s when Fest was exciting. It was the place to see and hear things that you could not get anywhere else. They had all the movies, it was great to see them on the big screen. They had a video room where they showed clips you could not see anywhere else, press conferences from the 60’s, promo films, and interviews. I heard speakers that I never thought I would, Mal Evens, Paul’s brother Mike and others. The memories were fresh, the breakup was only a few years before. And the dealer room was full of bootlegs. That’s all I bought there. It was my only access to them.

    Now there is none of that. The only speaker I would like to see is Mark Lewisjohn. I have some questions about Tune In. I love the book but there are some things I question, but this is not the place for that discussion. I don’t know how you would fix it, so it would be better. I’m not sure you can. It’s time may have passed.
    ,

    • @Sandy, I can relate to this comment a lot. Like, a lot a lot.

      The problem with the Fest is very similar to the problem of the independent bookstore in the age of Amazon. With Amazon, you can find and buy any book (really any thing, but we’ll just stick to books) without leaving your desk. It’s cheaper, quicker, and open 24/7. How bookstores have solved this problem, to the degree they have, is by recognizing that what they provide is community, human contact, and curation.

      Fests as a whole are exploding, because people who once thought how cool it would be to do everything from your desk are realizing that, actually, no, other people are a feature, not a bug. For as much as I was underwhelmed by the merch room, I loved hanging around other people who like the Beatles as crazy-much as I do. (Obviously.) The Fest should emphasize its role as the only place on Earth where really huge Beatle freaks can let it all hang out. That’s a real benefit which people will pay for.

      Secondly, what the Fest used to offer was access — you could see the videos, and hear the bootlegs. THEY SHOULD STILL DO THAT. I am sure there are ways to get around the rights issue — hell, there might not BE any rights issue; you could never make a better case for a bootleg being played as “fair use” than at Beatlefest (educational use, no financial gain, no financial harm to owner). Have a video room hooked up to the internet playing chronological videos 24/7, and an audio room playing bootlegs 24/7 — this is all material already available on the internet, and you can’t sue Beatlefest for letting people use the internet. But here’s the kicker: have it be curated by somebody like Devin, or Ben Marks, or any of the other scholar-fans whose encyclopedic knowledge could allow them to select the most important, most illuminating audio/video. Fans are already doing videos showing the evolution of “Strawberry Fields Forever”; I would bet that 95% of the people Nancy and I saw at Beatlefest haven’t seen that video. (Side note: I see that Apple’s taken it down, which is incredibly dumb. There are two ways to handle fan interest in the internet age: let it blossom and reap the benefits, or try to apply old-fashioned methods of control, which 1) can’t work, and 2) turn off the very people who are the biggest unpaid evangelists for your content. Mass phenomena should always opt for spreading the word.)

      The Fest in its current format is winding down, that much is for sure. But there are still valuable things that it can provide, things valuable enough to get on a plane for. My memories of the Chicago Fest are of hanging with Nancy and her daughter, not of the textured Sgt. Pepper’s coffee cup. I agree that there was a wonderful thrill to going to Beatlefest on the hunt for “File Under: Beatles” or that version of Penny Lane with the extra trumpets. But if Beatlefest can move towards something less commercial and more educational, I think its audience will actually grow. You know what’s a really sweet market to sell to? Parents trying to educate their kids. Every time I go to a Beatles-related event, it’s loaded with parents and grandparents introducing their kids to the Beatles. Not only are they trying to kindle a shared interest, or an interest in music and creativity, or encourage an interest that the kids themselves have picked up, they’re also increasingly aware of the toxicity of most other pop culture. At its worst, contemporary pop culture is actually triggering/traumatizing; it’s certainly extremely sexualized and violent. The Beatles are increasingly an oasis.

      The only real difficulty facing Beatlefest is, unlike Comicon, there is a finite amount of source material, and first-degree speakers. But I think that can be finessed. In a world where there is a Jane Austen convention (which looks pretty goddamn interesting, and I’m not even an Austen freak), I believe Beatlefest can survive, and even thrive. But not by selling bubblegum cards to nostalgic Baby Boomers. That model is done. If they install a more educational/preservation mindset — as we seem to be doing here on Dullblog — while retaining the live music and ability to drink and dance and flirt IRL with other Beatles fans, I think the Fest can keep going indefinitely.

  2. Sandy wrote:

    Yes, I think you may be right. I need to be more open minded. I did have fun meeting other beatle fans, some are still friends today. And your ideas are great, I hope some one at the Fest or Apple sees them and takes them to heart.

  3. Craig wrote:

    It’s late and I’m going to bed but I just wanted to tell y’all I enjoyed reading about your thoughts re Beatlefest and I especially agree with this: “…the toxicity of most other pop culture. At its worst, contemporary pop culture is actually triggering/traumatizing; it’s certainly extremely sexualized and violent. The Beatles are increasingly an oasis.” Well said, Michael. It’s amazing how far society’s perception of the Beatles has travelled since Beatlemania.

  4. Nancy Carr wrote:

    First of all, I think it’s amazing that Beatle Fest still exists, almost 50 years after the last Beatles album came out. The Lapidos family and a lot of other people have clearly devoted a huge amount of work to ensuring its survival.
    But I think Michael’s right: its current incarnation does feel tired, and the Fest needs more centrality–and a bigger bang–to gain energy and younger attendees.
    Here are my suggestions, with the caveats that this was my first Fest and that I don’t know the implications that these suggestions would have for the bottom line.

    A SHORTER FEST: This is linked to my suggestion of having fewer events with bigger drawing power. Two full days ought to be enough, and perhaps this could help keep the price down, too.

    FEWER, LARGER EVENTS: While at one level it’s great to have a lot of things to choose from, I think the current Fest suffers from having too many small things going on at the same time. For example, I’d suggest creating an “Author’s Hall” where authors can meet attendees and sign books, rather than having a number of authors do stand-alone talks.

    BIGGER NAMES: Mark Lewisohn, for example. Giles Martin. Your favorite marquee Beatles-associated name here: _________. Ideally you’d have two of these, one for each day as a keynote speaker. With time for a substantive question and answer session.

    PRESENTATIONS WITH STRONG POVs: Devin, for example. Tom Doyle. Tim Riley. Have these be not general talks, but presentations (ideally with a strong A/V component) putting across a real thesis that’s worth talking about. Maybe have a point-counterpoint session (i.e. “Revolution #9 is a brilliant piece of avant-garde music” vs. “Revolution #9 is a dead end people find interesting only because of its association with Lennon.” Yeah, guess which side I’d be on.)

    FILM AND VIDEO SCREENINGS: See Michael’s points about this. It could also be interesting to do a “How Did This Get Made?” style panel about one of the films (“Help!” or “Magical Mystery Tour,” say).

    GREAT BEATLES MUSIC: As I said, this is what I liked best — but I would have liked it more if the audiences had been bigger and the venue better. Chicago School of Rock and Phil Angotti were competing with a host of other events, and performing in a not-great space. I’d argue for hand-picking a couple of local bands that do great Beatles and Beatles-related covers and really showcasing them, making the show more of an event. In Chicago we have both Phil Angotti and associates and Tributosaurus, for example.

    • WOW. This is a wonderful roadmap, expressed excellently, @Nancy. A convention like this, annually in a fun location, would be mobbed. And because it would be attracting a larger number of people, the big speakers would be more likely to be enticed. Given the numbers I saw in Chicago, there’s simply no reason for Tom Doyle to schlep over from the UK; he wouldn’t sell enough books. It’s got to be bigger, and I think the things we’re suggesting would make it bigger. I’m drawing on the other non-Beatle conventions I’ve gone to; and I suspect you are too.

      I particularly like the “Author’s Hall” idea. Most of these authors don’t have enough material, or performing ability, to occupy an hour onstage. The Q and As are usually pretty deadly. But an Author’s Hall, where you could walk up and down and talk to authors, look at their books, etc — that could really sell more books. A Q and A with 12 people doesn’t sell you books, but a room where 1000 people cycled through per day — with their resistance being beaten down by the aggregation of books for sale — that could work.

      Also, presentations with strong POV’s are essential. Not to show what a freak I am, but I once went to a fascinating convention on the RFK assassination, and the thing that made each presentation gripping was its strong POV. Even when I disagreed vehemently, I listened intently.

      I think Beatlefest has an aversion to anything controversial, for obvious reasons; but they should be hosting debates like the one Devin had with Tom Kipp in Seattle.

      And: Beatle films. Whatever the licensing fees, it would be worth it.

      A good convention isn’t just a gathering; it’s a mutual expression of passion. The goal should be to have every attendee leave loving the topic even more — and thinking about it differently. Otherwise, there really is no point to the schlep.