There are tribute bands, and then there's Rain.
On Friday evening, the all-Beatles repertory ensemble that grew out of the long-running Broadway production Beatlemania thrilled an all-ages crowd in Shea's Performing Arts Center with note-perfect renditions of songs from the mightiest canon in all of popular music history.
Period-specific costumes and sets, historical film footage alongside newly created montages starring the cast members, and a keen eye for a truly representative set list conspired to make the evening come as close to a genuine Fab Four experience as is possible in the present day.
To wit, the Faux Four -- Steve Landes (John Lennon), Joey Curatolo (Paul McCartney), Joe Bithorn (George Harrison) and Ralph Castelli (Ringo Starr) -- painstakingly re-create the recorded versions of Beatles standards, including many that the band itself never performed live.
That's tougher than it sounds, for after 1966 -- the year the band ceased touring and became a recording studio-only project -- the Beatles, with the help of producer-arranger George Martin, crafted increasingly complex, heavily orchestrated and intricately arranged pieces.
(Rain has its own mini-George Martin -- offstage keyboardist Mark Lewis, who provided much of the program's orchestral flair and filigree Friday.)
Rain arranged its performance chronologically, beginning with the shot heard 'round the world; the Beatles' 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. The simple joys of that harmony-heavy, early Lennon-McCartney were celebrated by the stand-in Fabs. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "All My Loving," "I Saw Her Standing There" -- these are timeless songs, and Rain kicked them in the pants.
Some of the strongest material came right around the mind-bogglingly productive period that coughed up "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The band concentrated on the "Pepper" material, offering a particularly inspired version of the psychedelic Lennon-McCartney masterpiece "A Day in the Life," with Landes nailing the Lennon vocal perfectly. The "Pepper" outfits made their appearance, naturally, and the music from that album still thrills.
But for this writer's money, it's the "Magical Mystery Tour" and onward phase of the Beatles' brief but brilliant career that remains the most profoundly creative music ever to be labeled "rock." So when the second set kicked off with "Hello Goodbye" and then moved gracefully into Lennon's tour de force, "I Am the Walrus," Shea's felt as if it were lifting off the ground and heading skyward. No, these weren't the actual Beatles, but, man, did Rain come close to the magic that has made three subsequent generations into fans of the Fabs.
Bithorn received one of the evening's several standing ovations when he tackled Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in a subdued new arrangement that gradually built into the epic guitar solo, originally handled by Eric Clapton on the Beatles' "White Album." Fittingly, the Side 2 suite of the band's final recording, "Abbey Road," led to the show's conclusion, before Landes re-emerged to pour his soul into Lennon's prayer, "Imagine."
Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles
Friday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Additional performances at 2 and 8 p.m. today.
For more information, call 847-1410 or visit www.sheas.org.