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Monday, September 27, 2021

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Arts + CultureSgt. Pepper, UnderCover

Sgt. Pepper, UnderCover

Musical collective UnderCover tackles on the beloved 50-year-old Beatles album -- in its entirety, in a multitude of styles

1967 was a banner year for music – a year when Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin topped the charts. But perched above them all was one album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by The Beatles, of course. Fifty years later, Sgt. Pepper is an icon of songcraft and experimentation that, if Rolling Stone Magazine has its say, remains the greatest album of all time.

June 2 and 3 at the newly refurbished UC Theatre, UnderCover Presents is poised to give that anniversary a hero’s welcome. UnderCover has made its name staging epic, one-night music festivals that celebrate classic albums with a lineup of premier local artists. The 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper finds UnderCover at the height of its powers: multi-talented musician and certifiable Beatles junkie Joe Bagale directs a roster that includes everyone from the legendary pop vocalist Raz Kennedy to the Iranian classical composer Sahba Aminikia.

And UnderCover is just warming up for the summer. August 17-20, it will close out the SFJAZZ Summer Sessions with four concerts paying tribute to Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and the Muscle Shoals Studio.

To get the scoop on both events, we joined Joe Bagale and UnderCover founder Lyz Luke in the studio, while they recorded the album for the Sgt. Pepper tribute.

48 HILLS UnderCover always takes on big albums, but with Sgt. Pepper, we’re talking about an album many people think is the greatest of all time. What allows you to take an album of this magnitude and say that the Bay Area has something to bring to it?

LYZ LUKE I had been reluctant to do The Beatles because they’re so iconic. But this album – 50 years of Sgt. Pepper – if I’m gonna do The Beatles, it has to be this time.

I think the spirit of this entire album is about being open-minded and accepting and trying to explore things sonically. You can just hear all of the different influences in this album, and you’ll see it in our lineup. There’s a strong Indian influence in there, but we also brought in Middle Eastern music. As far as diversity goes, the Bay Area’s got it, and I think that this project works so well here because of that diversity.

Lyz Luke of UnderCover. Photo by Gundi Vigfusson.
Lyz Luke of UnderCover. Photo by Gundi Vigfusson.

48H Why was Joe Bagale the right person to be the music director?

LL Joe Bagale is the biggest Beatles fan I know, hands down. He will geek out for hours and hours on end, if you let him. So I went to Joe and just told him, “Hey, this anniversary is coming up. You’re the only person I would ask to do this.” And he was very enthusiastic about it.

48H Joe, why were you so excited to take it on?

JOE BAGALE The Beatles are the reason I wanted to become a musician. The earliest memory I have of listening to this record is on these road trips that my family used to take.

Joe Bagale on the way Sgt. Pepper changed his life, video by Cristina Isabel Rivera:

48H I couldn’t help but notice that you perform as Otis McDonald, an alter ego, just like The Beatles did in Sgt. Pepper. Why did you want to do that in your own music?

JB When you put on the costume of a character, there’s a certain sense of freedom to experiment that comes with that. A big thing that I get from this psychedelic period of The Beatles is this willingness to experiment with speeds of tape, so when you hear a lot of Otis McDonald tracks, it’s got this sped-up vocal sound, or sometimes it’s really slow. I stopped caring about it having to be the way my voice always sounds, and just started experimenting – painting with sounds.

48H Do you think Sgt. Pepper is the best Beatles album?

JB At one point in my life, maybe Sgt. Pepper was, but I go through so many phases with The Beatles. My personal favorite is the White Album. But you ask me next year, it might be Abbey Road. It changes. There’s so much.

Members of Awesome Orchestra recording "When I'm Sixty-Four." Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.
Members of Awesome Orchestra recording “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.


48H Did you have a guiding principle when you were picking the bands in the lineup?

JB My first rule was that the music has to be high-quality. That’s a big prerequisite because, for me personally, The Beatles are the high standard that I’m always trying to reach. The second thing was I wanted to make sure we crossed so many different genres, the way The Beatles did, because by being willing to fuse together all these different styles of music, they brought so many people together.

48H What are a couple examples of bands or interpretations that you’re particularly excited about?

JB As far as what’s been recorded so far, Eyes on the Shore totally flipped “Getting Better” and made it their own. The melody is all still there, but they completely reinterpreted the harmony that goes underneath it and made it this lush, anthemic, rock song.

“Good Morning” is a really progressive tune for The Beatles because of all the time signature changes. I thought rhythmically that could lend itself to an Afro-Cuban group, and then Soltrón went even more overboard with it: all these different feel changes, yet it’s so cohesive.

LL We also have Sahba Aminikia, a very accomplished Iranian composer who recently collaborated with the Kronos Quartet. He’s doing a version of “When I’m Sixty-Four” that’s also a subversive political act: Iranian women are not allowed to sing in front of men they’re not related to, so he had a singer from Tehran named Mina Momeni record the vocals in a video, and he and members of Awesöme Orchestra will perform in front of it live.

And personally, I’m Indian, and it’s just really cool to be able to represent my people’s music with Rohan Krishnamurthy and the dance group Non Stop Bhangra.

48H Sgt. Pepper came out after The Beatles had stopped touring, so even The Beatles didn’t perform these songs live. Which song is going to be the trickiest to get right on stage?

JB If anything, it would be the transition between the two songs that I’m doing: the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise and “A Day in the Life.” The reprise has NonStop Bhangra, and “A Day in the Life” has my six-piece band, plus a 25-piece orchestra. Just having enough room for everybody might be really challenging. Plus my band is all multi-instrumentalists, so I have to choreograph how we switch instruments onstage, too.

Lyz Luke, Joe Bagale, Sahba Aminikia, and Awesome Orchestra post-recording. Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.
Lyz Luke, Joe Bagale, Sahba Aminikia, and Awesome Orchestra post-recording. Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.

48H This will be the first UnderCover show at The UC Theatre, a 100-year-old venue that re-opened last year after a big restoration. What’s your review of the space?

LL Every single detail is just lovingly thought through. The production people at UnderCover critique everything as soon as we walk into a venue, and we can’t do that with his venue. It sounds incredible. They also have an amazing youth program that teaches students the behind-the-scenes of the music industry, and they have a real family dynamic as a result of it.

48H Who are the other collaborators who are helping bring Sgt. Pepper to life?

LL A lot of people don’t remember that we do this whole album recording process. Most of the tracks are being recorded at Zoo Labs, and all of them are being mixed there. KPFA and KALX are co-announcing the show. And we have a really amazing new stage designer named Bridget Stagnitto. We’re trying to give a nod to the original album cover, but also to the Bay Area: she’s creating this giant, floral heart, and then a collage of Bay Area landmarks made out of welded metal panels that will hang behind it.

48H Switching gears to your upcoming shows at SFJAZZ: It seems like a pretty big deal for UnderCover to be closing out the SFJAZZ Summer Sessions. How did that come together?

LL After the Sly & The Family Stone show at the Fox, I got an email from Randall Kline, who’s the founder of SFJAZZ. He just asked me to meet up for coffee – no agenda or anything. So I went over to the SFJAZZ facilities, and I went into his office, and he’s like, “I’ve been hearing your name a lot, and I just want to know what it is you do, and why you do it.” So I started talking to him about UnderCover and all those magical moments and connections that are made backstage, and how diversity and community are so important to me, and how music is a great tool to make that happen. And as I was talking to him, he totally got choked up, and I even got choked up seeing him get choked up.

We didn’t talk about shows at all, but I think we made a connection. Then they were doing a series where they were combining a live concert with a film. We decided to do something for the Amy Winehouse documentary, and we wound up selling out two shows in one night really fast and just had a great experience, so Randall reached out to me about closing his summer series.


Joe Bagale discussing his arrangement of "A Day in the Life" with members of Awesome Orchestra. Photo by Joanna Ladd.
Joe Bagale discussing his arrangement of “A Day in the Life” with members of Awesome Orchestra. Photo by Joanna Ladd.

48H Why did you break away from the album model for your shows at SFJAZZ?

LL Doing the singles gives us the freedom to cover artists like Ray Charles and Nina Simone, who are iconic artists but don’t necessarily have that iconic album, and we can do creative things like the Muscle Shoals Studio. The only show where were doing a whole album is Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew because I wanted to get weird with it: it’s an instrumental, psychedelic, jammy album, and it would just be so challenging for the musicians. We don’t usually get to do that with UnderCover. With SFJAZZ, it’s a sophisticated audience, and I think they can handle it.

48H How did you pick the songs for your lineup out of all those classic singles?

LL We left it up to the artists. I reached out to the acts that are performing and asked them to send me their top picks. You’d be surprised how often they’re very different. The only artist where a couple people really wanted the same songs was Nina Simone. There, I gave a little bit of favorability to the Oakland School of the Arts students ‘cause there were some songs where it would be so much more powerful if a group of young musicians was able to sing them.

48H Plus, you love them [the OSA students].

LL I do love them! A lot. I would adopt each and every one of them if I could.

48H Why did you want to celebrate the Muscle Shoals Studio alongside Ray, Nina, and Miles?

LL You don’t know Muscle Shoals, but you know Muscle Shoals. It’s a very distinct sound, and you start seeing a common thread throughout such a historic time in music. It’s everything from Aretha Franklin to the Black Keys. And it’s really exciting for UnderCover to be able to have such a diverse range on one bill, with four artists.

48H Can you give us a preview of some of the acts?

LL I think Zakiya Harris is going to kill it for Nina Simone. She’s a powerful woman who speaks her mind, she’s confident, she’s a dynamic singer. And she’s going to bring all the issues to the table that Nina faced and address them, and I think even bring some closure to some things that Nina was struggling with.

I’m excited to see what Kev Choice does with Bitches Brew. Kev Choice is a classically trained pianist, which a lot of people don’t realize, and he’s also got this whole hip-hop background. I think that with four different songs, you’re going to see four sides of Kev Choice up there on the stage. 

June 2 and 3, 7pm, $20-$77.50

UC Theatre, Berkeley
Tickets for June 2 here
Tickets for June 3 here
Register to volunteer here for free admission

Joanna Ladd
Joanna Ladd is a writer and affordable housing developer in San Francisco. She has been following the Bay Area local music scene since 2014.
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