Growing up in Alma, Tommy Bentz was enthralled with the guitarists in the Allman Brothers Band and the great British blues rockers — Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and, especially, Cream-era Eric Clapton. Flying under the radar for him was Beatles guitarist George Harrison, even though Harrison and Bentz share a birthday (Feb. 25).
That started to change about 10 years ago when Bentz decided to enter a contest sponsored by Icelandair that involved musicians performing covers of Beatles songs, with the winner getting a trip to England and a chance to perform at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the Beatles’ old stomping grounds.
The first time out, Bentz and his band performed a psychedelic version of “Hey Bulldog” at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., in front of Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles. Bentz didn’t get the nod the first year, but he came back the next year with a cover of Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone” and won the contest.
“Pete loved that version of it,” Bentz said, noting that he and his band got to play a couple shows in Iceland and one in Scotland in addition to the Cavern Club. The contest and the trip got Bentz looking into Harrison’s body of work, not only his Beatles music but his solo material as well.
“Not that I don’t like John and Paul and Ringo, but George is my favorite,” Bentz said. “He was a very understated talent. He’s the quiet one, as they called him, the guy in the background. I kind of identify with that.”
Five years ago, the Tommy Bentz Band started doing Harrison tribute shows around Feb. 25, and Bentz and company return for another show Saturday, March 4, at Leo & Leona’s Tavern and Dancehall. The show includes Beatles favorites like “Here Comes the Sun,” “I Want to Tell You” and “Something” as well as post-Beatles songs, including some deep cuts and B sides.
The show also will include songs Bentz has written and recorded, mainly bluesy rock that spotlights his impeccable work on guitar, an instrument he didn’t take up until his mid-teens after growing up playing oboe and saxophone.
The lineup for the Tommy Bentz Band for the past four years includes Jason McLean on bass and drummer Alex Burgess, a 2007 Onalaska High School graduate. Burgess went to school at the University of Wisconsin campus in River Falls, where Bentz is based and where he has owned and operated a music store, Brickhouse Music, since 1993.
Burgess works at Bentz’s store giving drum lessons and finds time to play in seven other bands, playing mostly jazz, although the Tommy Bentz Band is his main gig, playing 50 to 60 shows per year. Burgess has gotten the chance to go on several United Kingdom concert tours playing drums for Bentz, and he credits Bentz’s attention to detail with making him a better musician.
Like Bentz, Burgess is a Beatles fan, but his love for the Fab Four surfaced early in his life. He remembers he was 8 years old and found a copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in his parents’ record collection, attracted by the cover’s colorful collage of famous folks.
“I’m going, ‘What is this?’” Burgess said. “It was really unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and it was the first music that I noticed the drums on. The Beatles have been and continue to be a big influence.”