CLEARWATER — There were rooster crows and checkerboard guitars, Lovely Rita and punk-pop power. One dude tackled the intricate voices of four. And a band of Illinois cutups took on a dare from Liverpool legends … and triumphed.
When the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, John Lennon said the album could never be performed live: too intricate, too trippy. But at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday, in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,180, Cheap Trick did just that, tackling the pop canon with equal parts reverence and their own snarly sense of fun.
Cheap Trick, whose signature hits Surrender and Dream Police were inspired by McCartney & Co., put on this tribute last year in L.A. and New York. But this local stop was special.
Lead singer Robin Zander lives in Safety Harbor. Geoff Emerick, the original engineer on Pepper, was in-house overseeing the soundboard. Special guest Donovan, the '60s psychedelic folkie who taught the Beatles to fingerpick an acoustic guitar, flew in from Ireland to tell a few tales, sing a few of his hits (Catch the Wind, Sunshine Superman) and play imperfectly lovely renditions of Dear Prudence and Blackbird.
And when it came time to tackle Pepper front to back, Cheap Trick was backed by the Florida Rock Symphony, a booming 24-piece orchestra with a sense of fun and grandeur. The ultimate question, however, would be how Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen, drummer Bun E. Carlos and bassist Tom Petersson would blend their rowdy sound into a masterpiece.
After straight-ahead covers of the title track, With a Little Help From My Friends and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, the band entered a comfort zone. Getting Better sounds like a Cheap Trick song already, and the reliably zany Nielsen let his theatrics shine, tearing off some ragged solos that led into Fixing a Hole, which featured Zander rearing back and howling.
Zander, whose voice has always had that crystalline Lennon snap, had the night's toughest task, tackling all those different deliveries but maintaining his own panache. His most impressive feat was She's Leaving Home, in which he delivered those high-holy notes with a slowly swelling string session behind him. When Nielsen pointed to his frontman and said, "This is the only man who could do this show," you believed the hype.
The night wasn't without its bumps and bruises. Within You Without You, with Donovan on lead, was a mess, but an interesting mess. And Cheap Trick followed with a When I'm Sixty-Four that reined them in a bit too much.
But soon enough, they turned Lovely Rita in a whirling scrum of noise, and Good Morning Good Morning was loosened up into a slick rock jam. A Day in the Life is a perfect song, and instead of getting too clever (the Beatles already took care of that), Cheap Trick played it right down the middle, the audience singing along … and appropriately standing at the end.
Cheap Trick returned to play an encore version of Abbey Road's epic finale. Long after the lights went up, the crowd demanded more. And who knows? Maybe someday they'll get it. After all, the White Album turns 40 this year.