For Steven Howard, the Beatles are as relevant today as they were nearly 40 years ago when he learned to love them as a lad growing up in Liverpool. Howard, who does the work of Paul in Beatles tribute act the Mersey Beatles, recently provided a list of Beatles lyrics that have stood the test of time. Those lyrics include "all you need is love," "money can't buy me love," "I get by with a little help from my friends" and "think for yourself."
There's obviously nothing about those ideas that is dated. Timeless is just one way to describe the Beatles. "Vital" is another.
Howard said that he and his mates - Mark Bloor (John), Brian Ambrose (Ringo), David Howard (George) and Tony Cook (they went ahead and added a fifth Beatle on keys) - work very hard to keep the love of the Beatles alive in long-time devotees while at the same time introducing a whole new generation to Beatlemania.
"Like all tribute bands, it's our job to remind existing fans how vital the music is and to create new fans by bringing the music to a live audience," he said in a recent interview. "We are here because we love the Beatles and we love to play their music. We hope that translates to the audience."
Clearly it translates to Fort Wayne audiences, as the city keeps inviting the Mersey Beatles back again and again and again. Their next in-town performance will be at C2G Music Hall Friday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m.
"I like the idea that people bring their kids and they want to know more about the band, or that people bring friends who say they don't like the Beatles and go away as fans after hearing one or two rare tracks or the sheer range of sounds and ideas they come up with," Howard said.
The Mersey Beatles formed in 1999. The members were friends and shared a deep love of the work of John, Paul, George and Ringo. They took that love to clubs around northwest England, and in 2002 they were invited to become the resident Beatles tribute act at Liverpool's famous Cavern Club where the Beatles got their start. For a decade the Mersey Beatles entertained crowds hungry for the sounds of the Fab Four. The gig only ended because the group grew too popular on the other side of the pond to keep to a regular schedule at one club.
"It was a thrill to play at the Cavern every single time," Howard said. "It also taught us to handle different crowds ... the set required us to play around 50 songs for each gig twice weekly, so it gave us a chance to build our repertoire. We do return occasionally for one-off shows, and it's always a sell-out. We were there recently after an 18-month gap, and it was a contender for our favorite gig of the year so far."
Howard came to his love of the Beatles on a sad day - March 8, 1980, a date that will live in infamy for every Beatles fan. Howard was a child at the time and not even aware the Beatles existed. Then John Lennon was shot, and Howard's eyes and ears were opened.
"They showed the film 'Help' on TV as a tribute to John, and that was it. I was hooked. I said to my big brother, 'These cool guys are from here in Liverpool?' That continues to be a source of pride. It turned out that my brother had the Please Please Me album and we wore it out. I asked my mum and dad for Beatles albums for Christmas and birthdays from that day."
Like many musicians, Howard grew up in a musical household. His parents and three brothers all had eclectic record collections, and Howard inherited a guitar when his brother lost interest in the instrument. Howard never lost interest in it, or in the Beatles, whose "Strawberry Fields Forever" he ranks as one of the best songs ever written. Ever.
"I can listen to anything live and get something out of the experience," Howard said. "People still recommend new stuff to me, and I always investigate and enjoy, but I'm still waiting for a recording as effecting as 'Strawberry Fields' or an album as brilliant as The White Album. I always seem to go back to the Beatles."
You might think that someone who has played Paul McCartney for 18 years has probably had the pleasure of meeting him, but the fact is, Howard got very close one night after a concert but then was turned away at the dressing room door.
"If I did get to meet him, it would be nice just to say thank you for his music and the joy it has brought me throughout my life," Howard said, "but I'd probably be too nervous to say more than 'Hi, Paul."
A Mersey Beatles show promises accuracy both in terms of sound and look - outfits are very much a part of the mix - but the band makes a sincere effort to avoid mere imitation. This year's performances celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first half of the set is a live version of the entire iconic album, and the second a sampling of the band's greatest hits.
"We try to make each show like it's the first time we have played the show and the first time the audience has heard the songs," Howard said. "It's like we are trying to create new Beatles fans just like when you would make your friends a mix tape to get them to love the same bands which you love, but live."
The Mersey Beatles also try to embody what was best about the Beatles which, according to Howard, is multi-faceted and many splendored.
"The music. The universal truths in the songs. The humor and honesty in their interviews. Their interesting life journey. The restlessness of their musical curiosity. The range of their ability as musicians, songwriters and singers. Each voice was unique, and yet the blend of their harmonies is one of life's great wonders, and it really is about the records in the end. They just make for great listening, alone or with others. Some things can't be explained. You hear them and you just know instinctively, 'This music is good.'"