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Review: Celebrating Sgt Pepper Live at Echo Arena ****

It was 10 years ago today – well, OK, give or take 24 hours – the Echo Arena was christened with a fanfare, Britannia, a real Beatle and the RLPO stacked seven stories high.

So it was apt the Phil should return, if not this time on precarious scaffolding, and they should bring, if not one live Beatle, then four faux but fantastic Fabs with them.

It was also the final hurrah for the RLPO and Bootleg Beatles’ hugely successful Celebrating Sgt Pepper: Live series of concerts which began last May in Hope Street, but which saw them sell out venues across the UK including the Royal Albert Hall.

And while Saturday night’s show wasn’t a vintage performance, and it got off to something of an uncertain start, you can’t argue with the musicians’ talent and those iconic Beatles numbers.

Sgt Pepper itself remained sandwiched between composer Nigel Osborne’s Birth of the Beatles Symphony, a musical story interspersed with anecdotes and verse by presenter Roger McGough, and a clutch of other Beatle songs from 1967 (and Eleanor Rigby from ’66, but with a strong string section to recommend it).

Above: Roger McGough. Top: All You Need is Love. Photographs by David Munn.

There was also a new addition for this show, a McGough poem called The Good Fight, performed with energy by the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Company, although not necessarily energising the room as a whole.

It took the appearance of the Bootlegs in lurid Sgt Pepper satin to stop the arena crowd chatting and get them going, along with the Phil’s evocative live version of the tuning up you hear at the start of the record, before the opening upward twang of guitar and some punchy brass heralded the Lonely Hearts Club Band was in the house.

Ever imagine what it would have been like to see the Beatles backed by a 70-piece symphony orchestra? Pretty damned special actually – the classical musicians adding depth and texture to the songs Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison’s Within You Without You) wrote and the masterful George Martin scored for strings, horns, brass et al.

The Bootleg Beatles. Photograph by David Munn

There are some numbers on Pepper where that orchestration, tweaked for performance here by composer Nigel Osborne, was the fifth Beatle in the room – A Day in the Life being an obvious example, with the Phil’s marching up those mighty 24-bar increments of sound with precision and force.

The trombones bounced happily along with McCartney’s Fixing a Hole, there were requisite rippling strings below the vocal line of She’s Leaving Home, brass bombast in Good Morning and a big meaty musical punch to Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.

And then in the second section of the show, Richard Cowen’s joyful trumpet voluntary in Penny Lane and the lush strings of Eleanor Rigby buoyed the Bootlegs’ carefully-crafted, powerfully delivered recreation of those Fab Four classics, ending in a full-on ticker tape, sing-a-long All You Need Is Love.

There were some issues with the sound system during the evening – buzzing here, a spot of distortion there. But you’d have to be hard of heart indeed not to have enjoyed the show.

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