ARCHIVE: Fab Faux Dig a Pony

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All Faux One: The Fab Faux, clockwise from top left: Jimmy Vivino, Jack Petruzzelli, Will Lee, Rich Pagano, Frank Agnello.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 29, 2009)

It was just about five weeks ago that The Fab Faux — that wondrous bunch of WannaBeatles assembled from some of the most sought-after session cats in what’s left of the music biz — came to Red Bank to perform their annual benefit concert at the Count Basie Theatre, a tradition that’s been going on for the better part of ten years. While local FauxFans have generally had to do an entire lap around the sun until their next FauxFix, the summer of 2009 offers up an unprecedented opportunity to catch the MockTops in action once more — this time on the open-air SummerStage of the Stone Pony, where they’ll be appearing this Saturday evening.

That’s especially exciting news, since the five Fabs certainly have their own fish to fry throughout the working week. This, after all, is the band that famously features two fixtures of late-night talk TV — bassist Will Lee of The Late Show with David Letterman, and guitarist Jimmy Vivino of the recently relocated Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. With Conan’s move 3000 miles (and one crucial time-slot) away, the bandmates have become Nielsen ratings rivals of sorts (awk-wurrd), though you’d never know it by Vivino’s continued cross-country treks to join his East Coast compadres nearly every weekend.

Fellow vocalists and instrumentalists Frank AgnelloRich Pagano and Jack Petruzzelli are themselves members of that same talent pool of New York session aces, and together the five fabulous fakirs have played with pretty much everyone in the history of the recording industry. No, really. Everyone. Like, there’s no point in even starting a list. In fact, we’ll just list the pathetic handful of acts who haven’t worked with any of these guys — Mrs. MillerThe Singing NunWazmo NarizJeff ConawayVon LmoOld Skull, and Rotting Moldy Flesh. And we’re not even sure about a couple of those there.

Don’t even think of The Fab Faux as a hobby project — not when the band has stepped up their schedule of live dates, gigging transcontinentally and internationally with the mix of early-career jangle and psychedelic-era experiments that have made their homage the most respected from here to the annual Beatle Week fest in Liverpool.

With its special emphasis on late-period Beatle tunes — the ones the boys never got around to playing live — and its welcome avoidance of moptop wigs, matching suits, Sgt. Pepper facial hair and 60s stock footage, a Fab Faux show is a thing of beauty and drama and nuance that puts forth stuff like “A Day in the Life” and “I Am the Walrus” and “Glass Onion” in ways you’ll never hear on the county fair circuit.

Red Bank oRBit spoke to William F. Lee IV on a rare night between gigs; Continue Reading for best results.

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RED BANK ORBIT: Hey, Mr. Lee — we’re working up a little advance piece on your show at the Stone Pony this weekend, which is a rare second chance to see you around here after the annual Count Basie show. Will you be performing with the horns and strings like you have in the theatre setting, or are things a bit more stripped-down for playing outdoors?

WILL LEE: We’re actually not bringing the horns this time; we wanted to do a different sort of show than we did last month at the Count Basie, since the shows are so close together. We don’t usually look to do outdoor gigs too often, mainly because a lot of them are festival sort of situations and we don’t always get a proper sound check. But we are very happy to be playing this venue under these conditions.

It’s a good size stage, a good configuration they’ve got there outside the club. The only thing is, the stage is elevated up above the fence, and there’s a lot across the street where you can get a good view and hear everything fine, like the Little Rascals watching a ballgame through a hole in the fence. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this…

No, I’ll probably be standing there myself! Checking it all out!

Now, you were in Asbury Park about a month and a half ago, playing a little jazz gig.

That was with John Tropea, who’s a Jersey guitar icon from way back. I did about eight or nine shows with him recently. We first started working together back in the 1970s — you heard one of his records on Top 40 radio, if you remember a thing by a guy named Deodato

Really! He was on Deodato’s jazz cover of “Also Sprach Zarathustra!” That was a great guitar solo. That record was from a time when it was possible to get all these freak hits on the radio; things like “Dueling Banjos” and “Soul Makossa.”

Right. Back when studio musicians filled the airwaves with all kinds of crazy stuff. Being part of the New York scene, I played on a lot of strange things myself. Some of the heaviest studio guys of all time, performed some of the sappiest music ever played.

On that note, did you ever play on something sappy that you’d care to confess to at this time?

You know, I have to say I never had a gig that I thought wasn’t the hippest thing ever! I never did weddings, never played in the pit band for some silly show like Hairspray — I would drive to Canada and play for just $35 if I was really into the gig.

And the end result is that you’ve got a sweet and long-term gig with a TV show, where it looks like you’re still having a blast — and you’ve got this little thing called the Fab Faux that you do, what, about once a week?

That sounds about right, one gig a week on the average. It’s really caught on!

And how did this all come about? It must have become so much bigger than the fun side project it probably started out as.

My good friend Hiram Bullock, who we lost last year — in fact, (July 25) was the one year anniversary of his passing away — had a lot to do with the creation of the Fab Faux, even though he was never in the band. The Fab Faux started because Hiram used to love having a singing drummer in his band — so they could do the three-part harmonies.

He hired Rich Pagano, and when I saw them play, something about Rich’s playing was very Beatle-y somehow, and it dawned on me to do this band — it would be so much fun to bring this music to the stage. Rich had a lot of connections, and we put together the band with the same five guys that have been together for over 10 years now.

Just the fact that you have the five guys sets you apart from all the wig and costume, Beatlemania sort of bands. Unless one of you is supposed to be Stu Sutcliffe.

You know, I’m sure there are some good guys out there, but to me, they’re missing out because of trying so hard to achieve the look. The wigs and the suits, the mustaches and the Sgt. Pepper uniforms are holding them back.

When we put together the Fab Faux, I knew that I wanted to have a five piece band, especially since we were taking on so much of the later stuff. The magic in what the Beatles did is in the overdubs, the layering of sounds. With a five piece band, it freed us up from having to be assigned to a part like an actor — so, I’m not going to do Paul’s songs or John’s songs exclusively. Everybody does everybody’s songs, and it has more to do with what each of us have a passion for.

So much of what you guys do was never done live by The Beatles, which I guess was a major reason for your getting together in the first place. Given the state of the music biz, do you think The Beatles could ever have gotten away nowadays with just walking away from the whole live performance thing? Would they have had to face the reality that the old system of radio and record promotion isn’t really there anymore, and they would need to connect with the fans more directly? 

Whatever the Beatles ever did, they never followed trends. They always did it outside the box, and the only real rule for them was to not play it safe. They were so good, and so confident, that it was always a question of let’s see what’s next, where can we take this. So it stands to reason that The Beatles would’ve continued to have done things that we just can’t imagine.

So I’m sure you agree with those who say The Beatles were more than the sum of their parts.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t think any one of them had the power of all four together. Not even Paul McCartney, who I think is at the top of the musical food chain, ever really captured it on his own.

And Paul wound up signing a deal with Starbucks, which I just can’t imagine the whole band doing as a group.

If The Beatles had stayed strong, stayed together, they’d be the ones buying Starbucks. ‘We fancy a cup of coffee; we’ll just buy you guys.’

Any plans to do a Fab Faux concert DVD or something like that?

We’re always tooling around with the idea of doing a DVD, but we’ve yet to settle upon a setlist.

As far as that setlist, how much does it change from gig to gig? Do you ever make room for some rarely played obscurities, or even some of the solo material? And is there ever any room for a little tweaking, a little improv, within the songs that you feature the most?

There’s not much room for improvement in the songs themselves. They came out pretty good, I have to say. But every now and then we’ll include something in the set, play something live that usually doesn’t make the list, and it’ll really come to life. Songs like “No Reply” and “Yes It Is” can kind of lay there as a record. And we have also built some of the solo material into our sets — there’s a lot of good stuff to choose from there.

What do you especially like from the various solo records?

There’s a fairly recent song, “Jenny Wren,” from Paul’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard album — it’s his modern “Bluebird,” in my opinion.

Here’s a tough question — probably not a fair one, at that. But if you couldn’t do the Beatles songs, whose music would you really like to take a crack at, really recreate onstage?

Hmm — if we’re talking about a tribute band? I’d say Sly.

I guess the world could use a good Sly and the Family Stone tribute. Especially since Sly himself was always so casual about showing up at his own gigs.

A lot of guys are out there, getting old and missing shows — I’m hearing about Aerosmith cancellations, and Rob Thomas not showing up for some of the dates. I heard he was going to be on Bill Maher and didn’t make the most recent show.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum you have Jimmy Vivino, who it seems will play anywhere, at any time, for anyone.

Jimmy, once he left New York for California, has just been amazing. He’ll do a full week of Tonight Shows, then we’ll play somewhere like Fort Lauderdale or Tampa over the weekend, and he’ll fly in on the redeye Friday night, play Saturday and go back to LA on Sunday morning. Now, we’re booked solidly into 2010, and we have yet to do our first winter with Jimmy living thousands of miles away — so, given the realities of flying these days, I’m kind of on pins and needles about our shows coming up in the winter months.

Speaking of Tonight Show guitarists, a while back I interviewed Bucky Pizzarelli, who played in Johnny Carson’s band in the years when the show was done in New York, and who also played on the Jack Paar and Dick Cavett shows. I mentioned how today’s talk-show bands are smaller than they were in his day, and he goes into this tirade, like “that’s not music, it’s just noise…”

Wow — spoken like a true parent! I have a lot of respect for Bucky, but even he’s not immune to that thing that affects everyone when they reach a certain age — ‘no music will ever be as good as my music!’

Another guy we did a story on recently, Robert Gordon, reminisced about a time when your musical guest on the Letterman show didn’t show up; you or Anton Fig called Gordon up at the old Lone Star Cafe where he was getting ready to do a show, and he raced over to the studio, where you guys just ripped into “Sweet Love On My Mind” with him, no rehearsal, and it was less than thirty minutes from surprise phone call to taping. Does this sort of thing happen more often than we know at home?

It actually doesn’t, it’s very rare. But Robert really did us a solid that night. It’s good when you have a guy like Anton in the band, who’s played with all sorts of people and can get everybody together like that in an emergency. And it came off sounding great of course — Robert really owns that kind of music.

All those years on the show, all the people you’ve worked with, have left you pretty much able to play any kind of music. But, to fill in the blank here, people might be surprised to learn that Will Lee likes to listen to…

I think they might be surprised that I love the music from The King and I. That’s my music; the great Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff from Broadway. It’s nothing like Hairspray!

Are you particularly fond of free jazz, avant garde sort of stuff?

I do like everything to be in tune and on time! Most of all, I’m a big fan of really good ensemble playing — and a great ensemble, when they work that well together, can go off in all sorts of directions without losing that thing they have. Miles Davis, when he had Herbie HancockRon Carter in his band — those guys could turn on a dime.

Which brings us back to the most fab of ensembles…

The Beatles! The more you listen to them, the more you discover and take way from it. Even after all these years, they’re still kickin’ my ass. And I love it!

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