There was just a little poetry to talking Aug. 29 with Mark Benson about 1964: The Tribute, the renowned Beatles tribute band he helped form back in 1984. That day happened to be the 51st anniversary of the end of The Beatle’s concert touring days, after the band’s evening show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on that day in 1966 (except for the rooftop gig documented in “Let It Be”).
As far as Benson and his band are concerned, you can save anything The Beatles recorded after that San Francisco concert for other Beatles tribute bands — 1964: The Tribute is going to stick with playing songs The Beatles actually played live, basically everything through “Revolver,” but nothing after retiring from the road.
“All that stuff is really fun, no question, and great music,” Benson said. But, he added, when The Beatles became strictly a studio band, there weren’t as many good-time, up-tempo songs, the kind that can get a crowd really going, and a lot of the songs became more elaborately orchestrated and difficult to reproduce in a live performance setting.
1964: The Tribute got its start in Akron, Ohio, in 1984, 20 years after The Beatles took America by storm with a series of legendary TV appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” later followed by a grueling tour of the United States and Canada. The Beatles logged 99 live performances that year, one of the busiest in the band’s six years performing as The Beatles.
During the roughly 33 years 1964: The Tribute has been playing Beatles music (more than five times as long as the Fab Four played live), the band has far surpassed the number of shows The Beatles did, playing as many as 140 shows a year and now getting in 70 to 90 shows a year. It has performed 14 times at the Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado (one of Benson’s favorite venues), including a show on the 50th anniversary of the show at Red Rocks by The Beatles. The band also played the Cavern Club in London and will play its 14th show at Carnegie Hall in February.
In the process of playing all those shows, 1964: The Tribute has won accolades for its work, with Rolling Stone magazine calling the show the “best Beatles tribute on Earth,” and similar endorsements from the former president of Apple Records and the late Dick Clark of “American Bandstand” fame.
When 1964: The Tribute performs at the La Crosse Center on Sept. 15, the lads will take the stage in snappy, matching tailored suits, using vintage guitars, amps and drums like the ones The Beatles played 53 years ago, mimicking the accents, the onstage banter, the subtle gestures and quirks that John, Paul, George and Ringo displayed the year the world fell in love with them.
When 1964: The Tribute formed, Benson decided he was going to portray John Lennon — and he got the first choice because he owned the station wagon that got the band from gig to gig. The idea from the start was to give audiences a taste of what it would have been like to see The Beatles when the band was at its performing peak — without the ear-splitting screams of young fans drowning out the music.
“1964 shows the audience what it was like to attend a Beatles concert in the early ’60s and generates the same feeling of happiness that is still generated by the music of The Beatles,” Benson said. “We get so much positive energy back from our audiences. It reassures us that for now, we are where we are supposed to be.”
Benson recalled one show where a young boy and his grandfather sat in the front row. As Benson and his bandmates launched into each song, the boy would look up at his grandfather with a big smile. Benson talked with the pair after the show and found out the boy and his grandpa had been playing the Beatles edition of the “Rock Band” videogame, and the boy was recognizing all the songs they’d been playing.
“That was a life moment,” Benson said. “They’ll never forget that.”
Benson is an accomplished guitar technician and builder —Eddie Van Halen and Jackson Browne are among his customers — and he loves to spend time in his basement workshop, where he has about 50 guitar projects in various states of completion. “It’s my secret laughing place,” he said.
While traveling for concerts brings some hardships and takes him away from his guitars, Benson is nowhere near wanting to give up getting onstage to perform as his musical hero with his longtime friends. “We’re all musicians and have been all of our lives,” Benson said. “Being able to play our favorite music every night is a win-win situation.”