Interview - Steve Landes of 'Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles'

Steve Landes as John Lennon in Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles
Steve Landes as John Lennon in Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles

RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles has long been a favorite of fans of the Fab Four with its sonic and visual recreations of the band’s finest moments. During this, The Beatles’ 50th anniversary of its American stage debut, RAIN ups its game even further with new set pieces, new LED hi-def screens, streamlined video content, and newly added classics. Starting June 10 in Newark, NJ (New Jersey Performing Arts Center), before heading to Philly (June 11 to 15 at The Academy of Music), Providence, RI (June 18 at Providence Performing Arts Center) and additional stops across the country, the RAIN shows with Steve Landes as “John Lennon” never cease to amaze.

A.D. Amorosi: You’ve led a charmed life where everything Beatles is concerned. You’ve played with their original drummer Pete Best and Badfinger’s Joey Molland. I know your existence isn’t always all about the Fab Four, but what say you about the access you’ve been granted into those elements of their legacy and your take on said legacy?
Steve Landes: That side of it has been really cool, to sort of see The Beatles’ world from the other side, as it were. I’ve played some of the same stages that they played – the Casbah Club with, as you mentioned, Pete Best, the Cavern Club, and the Empire Theater, all of those in Liverpool, as well as the Olympia Theater in Paris, the Prince of Wales in London, Circus Kromme in Munich, Germany. I’ve met and worked with so many people from their ‘inner circle’ – Freda Kelly, of The Beatles original fan club and Brian Epstein’s secretary, the late Sid Bernstein, who booked them into Carnegie Hall and of course, Shea Stadium. I’ve met Yoko, John and Yoko’s son Sean, John’s girlfriend during his ‘Lost Weekend’ May Pang, John’s first wife Cynthia, etc. And I’ve been lucky that so many of these people have been willing to tell me really great stories about their time with The Beatles, with John – stories they wouldn’t, and haven’t, told to the public or put into a book. I feel like I’ve gotten to know them and John so much better now, in a way that the typical fan wouldn’t otherwise be able to. I’ve stepped into John’s shoes in a sense, sometimes in the same spot on the same stages. I’ve been given this great opportunity to see his life and their career through his eyes in a way. The best thing about meeting these ‘Beatle people’ is that they’ve all had nothing but positive things to say about The Beatles, and John. They stayed who they were throughout their career, Liverpool boys without superstar egos. And John was very ‘what you see is what you get’ honest, and sincere.

A.D. Amorosi: Have you ever heard from any of the Beatles, or Apple honchos such as Derek Taylor about what it is you’ve done in their name?
Steve Landes: We have, to some extent, from indirect routes. I know that with everything we do, we try to make sure we’re not stepping on anyone’s toes at Apple, or doing anything that Paul, Ringo, or Yoko and Olivia would disapprove of. Everything that we do, we do out of a love and passion for who The Beatles were, what they created, and what they mean to us and all of their fans.

A.D. Amorosi: How did you get from Lansdale, PA, to the world of Beatles-branded entertainment?
Steve Landes: Practice, practice, practice! Actually, it came about from seeing the show Beatlemania as a kid when it came to Philly, and just thinking that that would be a fun thing to do, get to make a living playing The Beatles’ music, dressing as them, acting like them, etc. When I was a kid, I was playing in various bands – amateur bands, garage bands, weekend bands, you name it, around the area. At some point, I just wanted to try the whole ‘Beatle tribute band’ thing, so I found a local band that was doing that. It just so happened that the ‘Paul’ from that band knew one of the ‘Johns’ from Beatlemania, who helped me figure out how to secure an audition with the show. It had already left Broadway by that time, and many of their cast members had already left, or were on their way out, off to other things, acting, other bands, original bands, etc. So when I went up to NYC to audition, they liked what they saw, and put me on what turned out to be some of the last touring gigs that the show did. Beatlemania was touring with two casts at that point, and the ‘John’ in the other cast, Jim Riddle, soon left to join RAIN, which is how I came to know that band and those guys. All of the guys from RAIN when I joined it were former Beatlemania cast members.

A.D. Amorosi: What Beatles cover band did you have that hailed from the Philadelphia area, where did you guys play, and was there, at that time, the same sort of theme-band market then as there is now with Pink Floyd, and Genesis cover bands?
Steve Landes: The whole ‘tribute band’ genre I think started with Mark Lewis’ RAIN, they’re the first band I know of that were doing that sort of thing. They started in 1975 in L.A. as an original band, Reign, playing clubs and stuff while trying to get a record deal, but pretty quickly were doing a whole set of Beatles songs in their act, and doing them as accurately as possible, which was a pretty novel idea at the time. Usually, especially then, if a band is going to cover another artist’s song, you’d try and do it your own way, make it your own. Then Beatlemania came along, with all of the costumes, and the theatrical stuff, and I think that’s about when the ‘tribute band’ thing really picked up in bars and nightclubs, etc. By the time I was old enough to get into bands, that whole thing had been going on for quite a while, so yeah, there were lots of tribute bands around, which is what I thought I’d be doing, that’s as far as I thought I’d be taking it. When I got into a local Philly/South Jersey band, Abbey Road, that’s when I found out that there was still the possibility of Beatlemania looking for new cast members, even though it had been around for many years at this point.

A.D. Amorosi: How did you make Mark Lewis’ acquaintance? Did he call you after Reign had become RAIN?
Steve Landes: I’m not exactly sure when Reign turned to RAIN, though I would assume it was pretty soon after they went from being an original band that did some Beatles covers, to becoming what was in effect the very first Beatles tribute band. That was many, many years before I came into the picture. RAIN called me when their ‘John’, Jim, got sick, and they needed someone to fill in. I was one of the handful of guys they called, mostly former Beatlemania members that they either knew personally, or had heard about through the ranks. Sadly, Jim passed away soon after, so the temporary fill-ins became potential full-time members, and after playing some really good gigs with the guys, I was the one that made the cut. Though I’d known or had met all of the other RAIN guys, through Beatlemania, I’d never met Mark before, except maybe in passing when I’d go see RAIN. He and I are like really great friends now, though. We share a lot of the same sense of humor, love of films, etc.

A.D. Amorosi: You’ve worked with Lewis for a while now – can you tell me a little but about his expectations?
Steve Landes: Mark’s expectations for when I came into the band full-time, really the whole band’s, were that I learn to play ALL of The Beatles songs – not just the hits, which was what I was used to from working in other Beatles bands, as accurately as possible, entertain the audience as best as I could, and fill my spot as naturally as possible within a band who’d been structured for so long before I came into it. All of the other guys had been in the band for at least a decade before I came in, so there’s that whole ‘where do I fit in’ stuff that happens early on. But we all very quickly became not only best friends, but family. There’s a camaraderie, a connection, that happens within a band – if you’re doing it right. And that’s how RAIN came to feel for me. We all shared the same passion, this sincere desire to bring The Beatles’ music to life on stage, we’re all very serious about the job – though we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we leave the personalities on the stage. We’re not like some of those ‘Elvis’ guys you see in the grocery store, buying their stuff while dressed in a white jump suit, that sort of thing. We love doing what we do, we appreciate and respect our audiences, we have a true love of The Beatles. I like to think that that shows not only in our performances every night, but in the fact that RAIN, and especially this particular lineup of it, has lasted so long.

A.D. Amorosi: Did you want or understand that it would be such a commitment – all Beatles all the time?
Steve Landes: Oh sure, I knew from being in Beatlemania and a couple of other Beatle bands, of course of knowing of, and having seen, RAIN before, I knew from that respect what I was getting into. I wanted to be a part of what RAIN was doing. At the time especially, but even now to some extent, a lot of the Beatles tribute bands were sort of transient – there were no real permanent band members, maybe one guy who would be the leader. The rest of the band he’d pick up gig by gig. Because of that, it was best if you knew just the hits, not the deeper album cuts. Forget it! Know the hits, and if you happened to know some of the keyboard parts to cover on a few of the songs, even better. Not a must, if not, they’d just make do with a bare-bones version of the song. RAIN was just about the only band (there was maybe one other at the time) that was always the same guys, always the same band, and filled with real musicians, not look-alike novelties who couldn’t really perform when it got down to it. Because of that, they were playing a different show every night, every Beatles songs you could think of, off of every album; even the bootlegs! They were always known within the business as being the best of the best. So yeah, I aspired to be a part of that. I was congratulated by many a member of the other Beatle bands when I made it into RAIN.

A.D. Amorosi: You write and release your own material apart from RAIN how often do you get to do this? Are you writing and recording on the road?
Steve Landes: I do write my own music, and I also have been doing a lot of non-Beatle covers, just singing whatever I want to sing, the way I want to sing. It can be hard to find the time to do that, RAIN is very busy, but with today’s technology, yeah, I’m doing a lot of it on the road. It amazes me to think we have more recording power on our laptops than what Abbey Road had when The Beatles first recorded there! Of course, I don’t have George Martin by my side, so it doesn’t come out quite as well, but hey, the technology is there! So yeah, I do a lot of recording on the road. I think it’s nice to have your own thing going, I think they complement each other. Obviously when you’re doing your own music, or, even as I said, covering other artists’ music but doing it your own way, it’s going to be a lot looser, a lot more interpretive than what we do within RAIN, where we’re playing the music exactly the same every single night, trying to sound just like the records. But there’s a special training in that, that’s its own exercise, which I think has helped us all a lot, given us a certain set of skills, which a lot of musicians who’ve never done this would never even think to have.

A.D. Amorosi: Why do you identify with John, as a musician and as a man, as opposed to the other Beatles?
Steve Landes: Initially, John stood out because his was the voice that matched mine the most, in timbre and vocal range. But as a person, who he was, how he carried himself, what he stood for, John really spoke to me. He is an icon of the whole love and peace movement, for thinking of your fellow man first. He wasn’t a god, or a perfect person – far from it. He had his flaws, but he wasn’t afraid to show them. When he spoke of peace, of creating a better world for ourselves and each other, he wasn’t coming at it like he knew all the answers and he was coming off his mountain to impart his wisdom to us lower folk. He was just one of us, another human just trying to get through the day, and help make tomorrow a little better. And he was willing to put his thoughts and feelings about all that into his music, and when he had the chance to speak in interviews. He was only around for a short time, but he learned so much and was willing to give his heart and mind to all of us. What he had to say still resonates with me, with all of his fans.

A.D. Amorosi: Let’s talk about how the show develops and changes. How do you determine what “new” Beatles elements you will highlight?
Steve Landes: We created the show back in 2001, so the foundation has been there since then, that we then build upon. We have been tweaking it, upgrading it, adding to it, bit by bit ever since. We always try to change up the set list every few years, because we do have a lot of fans that will come and see the show over and over again, and because with The Beatles’ catalogue, you really have so much amazing music to choose from. We last changed it in mid-2012, so if you haven’t seen us since then, you’re gonna hear us do some songs you hadn’t heard us do before. The process is pretty simple. When it’s time to change up the set list, we choose from what we haven’t done before, or what we haven’t done in a while but would like to revisit. We all get a bit of a say, and then it goes to Joey Curatolo, who’s not only our ‘Paul’ but our musical director. He shapes the set list, figures out what will work where, arranges the songs and song order, etc. and we go from there. We recently gave the production side of our show a real upgrade... We’ve always had video screens that show not only real-time footage of what’s happening on the stage, but also newsreel footage of what was going on during the time, the Sixties, and The Beatles’ career, as well as original montage videos we’ve created to complement the music. But, not only have we changed up the content of those videos somewhat, but they’re also now played on huge, gorgeous, state-of-the-art set of LED screens that wrap around the band, in effect becoming a living stage set that changes constantly. Using film footage and original artwork depicting sets from various Beatles performances, etc., we can virtually take you to the Ed Sullivan Theater, Shea Stadium, the rooftop in London for the Let It Be impromptu concert, etc. It’s really beautiful, and something no one in this genre has ever done before.

A.D. Amorosi: What Beatles moments haven’t you guys done as RAIN that you would like to see executed?
Steve Landis: Because we put this show together ourselves, it’s filled with pretty much all of the Beatle career high points I always wanted to see in a show – Ed Sullivan, the films, Shea re-creations, bringing the Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road albums brought to life onstage. But if I could have anything more added to our show, I’d like to see us add a full-out ‘what-if’ Beatles reunion sort of thing play out towards the end of our show. I do it a bit, in that I dress like John did in his solo Madison Square Gardens concerts during our encore, but I think it would be fun to flesh that out a bit more. Who knows, we’re always looking to change up our show, so maybe that’s in our show’s future at some point.

A.D. Amorosi: RAIN is a hit in the States. Have you guys performed in Europe and how has the reaction been as opposed to the US. And, in this, the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America – are you genuinely excited, and why?
Steve Landes: We have done our show in England and throughout Europe, and it has always gone over extremely well. I attribute that to the magic of The Beatles. We’re just paying tribute to them, they’re why people come to the show, why they sing along. But I do like to think that people also see the work, love and passion we’ve put into our shows, and hopefully that has been a small part of our show’s success. This 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America has been very special to us, we’ve been paying tribute to specific moments in their career, the Sullivan show, the Hard Day’s Night film, etc., and we’ll be doing it again next year when the 50th anniversary of Shea Stadium concert occurs, and then in 2017 when we hit the 50th for Sgt. Pepper. It’s an ongoing celebration of The Beatles’ longevity, which of course is great to see. The Beatles are forever.

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Steve Landes Photo by Cyllavon Tiedemann