Philharmonic pays tribute to Stones at Sweetwater
Orchestra members will join Windborne in Rolling Stones tribute
The Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra is coming back to Sweetwater Performance Pavilion to wind down summer and get ready to start their 2022-23 season in style.
In August 2021, the orchestra featured arranger and conductor Brent Havens and his Windborne band in their tribute to the music of Queen. It was so successful they brought Windborne back for two shows this year, the first being a tribute to Led Zeppelin on Aug. 20.
Up next is a tribute to The Rolling Stones on Saturday, Sept. 10
Going against the grain
Based in Virginia, Havens is a pioneer, having started Windborne around 1995.
Since the beginning of rock, occasionally bands would use orchestral accompaniment in the studio. It was much rarer that bands might tour and hire a different orchestra in every city to accompany them. These shows were prestigious but rarely successful.
In the ’90s, Havens, a television composer, had a new idea. Symphony orchestras are cultural institutions that mean a lot to their cities, but they needed help growing their audiences. Rock fans rarely went to see orchestras, so why not bring together classic rock tribute shows that orchestras could book to reach a new audience?
A jazz musician, Havens was admittedly not that familiar with rock, as he told us last month.
“I’m not sure if we were the very first, but we had never heard of anybody doing this at the time,” he said.
He set to work using his film-scoring skills to write his own orchestral arrangements, which began with a tribute to Led Zeppelin, which had ceased performing in 1980.
Initially, he had to hire orchestras himself.
“Yeah, that was the funny thing about that early on, nobody thought it was a great idea,” he said. “They thought, ‘Well, our audiences would never come see this.’ But once you had a track record, then it became obvious that this was a good idea. We were looking for an audience who had probably never seen the orchestra before. And that’s exactly how it turned out.”
For 26 years, dozens of symphony orchestras across the U.S. and England have hired Windborne to perform with them. Havens offers 16 shows paying tribute to acts including Pink Floyd, the Eagles, the Doors, Whitney Houston, and David Bowie, doing around 50 concerts a year at this point. They are so successful that Windborne has two extra bands with two other conductors. But the Fort Wayne Philharmonic is fortunate to get Havens and his “A” team.
He’s very glad to work with orchestras on Fort Wayne’s level.
“The orchestras are made up of musicians that are incredibly talented, have decades of experience on their instruments playing all kinds of music,” Havens said. “They are world-class players.”
The Philharmonic, in their full force at Embassy Theatre, are usually around 65 musicians. For these gigs at Sweetwater, concertmaster Violetta Todorova leads 26 musicians in accompanying the Windborne, conducted by Havens.
Taking in the Zeppelin show
On Aug. 20, I joined 950 Fort Wayne rockers in the audience to see the Led Zeppelin show.
Randy Jackson, of ’80s progressive rock band Zebra, has been the singer for Windborne’s Led Zeppelin concerts since their first outings in 1996. He’s only two years younger than Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, and has been studying this music all his life. The effect is uncanny at times.
Led Zeppelin was a quartet. Havens starts with that foundation. Windborne’s band is rocking as hard as you remember, but the orchestra expands on it, opening up new sounds.
Orchestral arranging involves taking chords or melodies from the original music and playing it with different combinations of acoustic instruments, to create new tone colors. The most impressive and beautiful effects are on Zeppelin’s lighter material. I found Havens’ arrangements less effective on the loud blues-rock numbers. But overall the orchestra is used skillfully. The strings can beautifully fill out the chords, whereas the brass adds a lot of punch to the heaviest guitar riffs.
In the expected places guitarist George Cintron played Jimmy Page’s wailing guitar solos. Bass guitarist Dan Clemens slotted every note into the pocket. On “Moby Dick,” Powell Randolph played an extended drum solo that was breathtakingly close to the late, great John Bonham. The audience roared.
The show closes with “Stairway to Heaven,” where Jackson plays 12-string guitar, and the orchestration, beginning with the woodwinds, builds through one long eight-minute crescendo with a powerful conclusion, ending in a whisper.
On Sept. 10, you can hear Havens and the same instrumentalists, plus piano player Justin Avery, lead the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in their tribute to the Stones.
Up front is Mick Adams, regarded as one of the best singers paying tribute to Mick Jagger in the U.S.
Adams has fronted his own tribute band, Mick Adams and The Stones, for years, and Windborne taps him frequently.
“To be in front of it all, that is really a powerful experience,” he said of playing with an orchestra. The first show I did with Windborne, they gave me goosebumps.
“You’re going to hear some really rocking stuff, and then you’re going to hear some of the really beautiful ballads. The strings alone with bring tears to your eyes.”
But he insists this is still rock n’ roll.
“People are so geared up for these shows, that they’re just ready to rock,” he said. “And even though it’s with an orchestra, I think that brings a mystique to it that they’re just dying to see. … Some of the best songs in the history of rock, and you get to hear them with a great band and a killer symphony orchestra. And I just get to run around out front and sing and have a blast.
“It’s a completely different vibe, but you still get all that energy with the air of sophistication. It’s pretty amazing.”
The Philharmonic’s president, Brittany Hall, is excited about the prospect of introducing the music to a new crowd.
“The concert that we did last summer was full of excitement and full of introducing new people to the Philharmonic. And that’s what really excites me about these programs. It allows us to keep the orchestra relevant to our community and highlight our musicians, who are rock stars themselves.
“We’re building pipelines into the concert hall, whether it’s for our Masterworks concerts, our Pops concerts, or even for our Chamber Series this year, featuring women composers. We are excited to launch our 2022-2023 seasons starting in October. We have a diverse array of offerings that reach out to every member of our community.”