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A friend of mine saw the Beatles play live, in Baltimore. A classically trained pianist, he sniffed that he found them to be “unprofessional.” Of course, that’s laughably missing the point, but he should have been at the Birchmere last Saturday. “1964”…The Tribute—”the #1 Beatles Show in the World,” according to its press material—played an evening’s worth of Beatles tunes that were beyond professional. The show was nonstop, filled with striking musical recreations presented as if from The Ed Sullivan Show or A Hard Day’s Night.

Don’t believe me? Well, this is what Dick Clark apparently had to say about the band: “The performance, professionalism, and musicianship make the illusion complete. ‘1964’…The Tribute creates magic!”

Don’t believe Dick Clark? Well, Louise Harrison, George Harrison’s sister, was supposedly so moved by the “1964” band members that she “held a party at her home in their honor.”

And if you’re going to call George Harrison’s sister a liar, I’m going to have to ask you to step outside.

Amid vintage Hofner, Rickenbacker, and Guild guitars, Vox amps, Ludwig drums (but a better sound system than the originals had for their D.C. Coliseum concert), Mark Benson (“John”), Gary Grimes (“Paul”), James Pou (“George”), and Greg George (“Ringo”) bounced onto the stage in Beatle boots, Beatle suits, and, yes, Beatle wigs.

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From the side, “Ringo”‘s resemblance is uncanny. “George” has the mystic smile down, while “Paul” is a bit chunkier than his lordship, and “John” looks more like Peter Noone. But as if staging a four-man one-man show, each of the players in “1964” has seemingly internalized the mannerisms of his character: Ringo’s head-bobbing, Paul’s unctuousness, the short bows after every song. The group shared the little between- and midsong winks and glances of bandmates—musical in-jokes lost on, or at the expense of, the audience. Even these seemed Beatlesque. Who knows?

The packed crowd was generally as gray, bald, and fat as you might expect, but there were a surprising number of children present—some on the laps of what appeared to be their grandparents. As “1964” began, with “I Saw Her Standing There,” the kids had the biggest smiles, rocking along, taking Polaroid pictures.

“Any screamers tonight?” “Paul” asked, probably unaware of the Birchmere’s strict no-talking policy. For the most part, the audience adhered to a reverent attention, clapping and singing along enthusiastically. “You’ve heard this one before, have ya?” asked cheeky “John” at one point.

Of course, we had heard them before, many, many, many, many times. And yet most of these songs have never been experienced in their natural habitat. While the Birchmere is not exactly the Cavern Club, to hear the crack of the snare and wail of the guitar in person actually made the chestnuts seem fresh. And have you ever heard “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “Taxman” played live? Played well? Played exactly? Though the illusion required a constant, willing suspension of disbelief, the precision of the playing kept renewing the effect. Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorr—no, I mean, close your eyes and dammit, it really is 1964.

As the name implies, “1964” sticks with the early repertoire, playing nothing after 1966. The Beatles released some 118 songs between 1962 and 1966. By volume alone, an impressive body of work. But as the Live at the BBC anthology reminded us, the Beatles were a tight little combo. It wasn’t all about the hair.

Beatles music is deceptively simple. While the sterling harmonies generally keep people from attempting them, it is the subtle way the individual parts fit together that trips up most imitators. Any extraneous playing throws everything off. Another reason you rarely hear a decent Beatles cover is that for most musicians the constant tendency is to overplay, to let the song and the moment carry you away. Happy Beatles music only aggravates this tendency. The Beatles themselves let the recording studio carry them away, overplaying the tape machines—Sgt. Pepper being the obvious example.

The curious thing about the guys in “1964” is that they are good enough to play the music, but they deny any impulse to get further into the music than the record allows. The show is a polite, midtempo affair, and tighter than their trousers. The harmonies—as on “Nowhere Man”—drew applause. All night, the supposedly quiet one, “George,” was happiest onstage, dancing and prancing about. Of course, he gets to play all those ace guitar licks. On record, George was overshadowed by the Lennon-McCartney songcraft; in public, John’s wit and Paul’s looks grabbed attention. But time and again, it was “George”‘s solos that sank the arrows deep into the bull’s eye.

That and “Ringo”‘s expertly studied fills, which underscore the genius of Mr. Starkey’s idiosyncratically precise percussion.

After the show, Mark, Gary, James, and Greg appeared at the Birchmere’s downstairs record store, selling and autographing pictures, posters, hats, and T-shirts. The repeatedly printed notice, “‘1964’ is not affiliated with or endorsed by Apple Corps Ltd.,” probably rules out selling albums. They’d likely sell.

The act has been together for 14 years, playing upward of 150 dates a year. It is booked through next April (including an August gig in Liverpool). Of course there’s a web site (www.grouph.com/entertainment/

1964/). It even has its own fan club. “Paul” proudly pointed out that “George” had been a member of the cast of Beatlemania. “George” has been with “1964” since 1993.

The musicians spoke eagerly and happily with audience members, who were eagerly and happily buying souvenirs to remember the night they sorta saw the Beatles. In person, another secret was revealed—these guys aren’t English! The uncanny onstage accents are just another part of the act.

All night long, the mood was like being at summer camp. There were sing-alongs on “Yellow Submarine,” and everyone stood and twisted for “Twist and Shout.” When the first notes of “Michelle” were heard, a mass sigh filled the room: “Awww…”

When “Paul” began “Yesterday,” you could cut the bittersweet sentiment with a knife. All eyes were pointed toward the stage, but they were seeing far into the past. Then someone shouted, “Sing it, Paul!” and it was 1997 again. Probably the same asshole who yells, “Freebird!”CP