Q&A with Joe Bithorn of Beatles tribute band Rain
New York City native Joe Bithorn plays the role of George Harrison in Rain, one of the most popular and well-known Beatles tribute bands in the country (appearing September 22 to 27 at the Buell Theater. Raised with a steady diet of classical, jazz, blues and psychedelic rock influences, Bithorn said that the Beatles catalogue served as a constant base, and that joining up with Rain in 1983 offered him the chance to pay tribute to work of the quartet. Westword caught up with Bithorn to talk about his background, his perspective on Harrison as a musician and the current interest in the Beatles catalogue that's accompanied the reissuing of their catalogue and the release of the new Beatles Rock Band game.
Joe Bithorn as George Harrison
Westword (A.H. Goldstein): To start out, can you talk a little bit about your musical roots and how you discovered the Beatles catalogue?
Joe Bithorn: It actually all started for me when I was quite young, when I was 3 or 4 years old. My mom had been working in an office in New York City, where I grew up, for a fellow by the name of Alexander Schneider. He's a contemporary of Isaac Stern, of Vladimir Horowitz and great opera stars. These were all like aunts and uncles to me when I was very young. I got to go to Carnegie Hall quite a bit at that age too. It was extraordinary. To grow up with that was something very special. I was rapt with attention. I was hanging on to the rails. There was something at that point that was really reaching out to me.
I started noodling around on the guitar probably age 7 or 8. Around that time, you kept hearing about the Beatles on the AM radio. To me, I wasn't really relating the Classical world to the pop world at that point. I listened to pop music and all kind of early R&B and rock and roll, and then suddenly the Beatles came on the scene. It was like a little switch came on - you have to play and do something with this, not just because you like it so much, but because there are a lot of girls and a lot of attention being paid to those four guys on stage. It was a very cool thing. By and by, it was first and foremost learning a lot of Beatles songs as a kid.
But there were a lot of different things going around in the mix. The Beatles thing at that point had kind of taken a back step. Even though every kid in my group, we were all interested in waiting for the next Beatles record to come out, that was really something. To be growing up in that era, even if you were very young, was something. All those memories are pretty prevalent in my mind.
WW: I know that you were involved in studio work at that time as well. How did that come about?
JB: When I was a kid, about 14 years old, I had learned how to play certain things. Because I was such a big fan of Eric Clapton, I had learned to play the solo in "Crossroads" and "Sunshine of Your Love" and most of those other songs. I'd learned to play them the way a blues player would play them. I was also very interested in Albert King and Michael Bloomfield.
As a musician, I was learning how to learn solos from records and how to take these things by ear, and also a little bit of the fundamentals of music. Back in the early days of the studio, it was more about how quick you were and what kind of sound you had. When I say studio musician, it's not really like the studio musicians of L.A., where there are guys there day in and day out, this is their bread and butter. It was more along the lines of I'd be involved with a band that was trying to record demos and one of the places I got to record was Media Sound Studios in NYC. It was pretty tough to try to go to high school in the morning when you've been doing sessions from midnight to 3 a.m.
WW: You mentioned that even though the Beatles were influential, you were focusing on some of the harder, blues sound. What brought you back to their catalogue to the point where you started playing their music regularly?
JB: I had a band in New York in about 1978, 1979 and we had all been Beatles fans. We just decided to get together and try to do this music as best we could. That's what happened, basically. We had this little thing going and then a buddy of mine had an opportunity to join up with the show Beatlemania. He was looking at something else at that point, and he knew about my band so he suggested me for the Beatlemania character set at that time. I ended up joining that show and staying with it for two years. That Broadway show brought me to the West Coast to come up and work with Rain in 1983.
WW: How long had the ensemble been together?
JB: The Paul McCartney that I'm working with now, Joey Curatolo, has been in there since 1983. It was partly him deciding to do this that edged me on to do it too. I'd worked with Joey, I'd played on one of his originals and played a track with him, but basically we were just friends through the show Beatlemania. I had been in it on the east coast, he was on the west coast.
We started to take the music a lot more seriously, as far as really transcribing it. We were doing things like "Glass Onion," anything that would be perking our interest, we were doing. It didn't matter to us, we would stick these songs inside of all the other popular songs that the Beatles had.
WW: Have you always filled the slot of George Harrison?
WW: A lot of attention has been paid to the duo of Lennon and McCartney. How has playing Harrison informed your opinion about his contributions to the band? Has it given you insight into his skills as a guitar player and a songwriter?
JB: He had an amazing range of influences. There was the rockabilly influence, the country influence coming in, and of course the Carl Perkins kind of rock and roll stuff. His skill as a writer, just for his knowledge of chords, that's really speaking to harmony - in listening to a song like "I Need You" from Help!, and you hear those ending chords, he's using the volume thing to make that sound, it's quite complex. One of those chords at the very tail end of that is something like a minor second over a minor chord. He's doodling around in an area that is the area that Steely Dan went to. That's quite early on. I don't know what he might have been listening to to come up with something like that, but he must have been listening to somebody pretty progressive.
Then you think about his influence with the sitar and bringing that into the fold, that was a whole other influence into the music of the '60s. Being influenced by Ravi Shankar and taking lessons from him, that's really reaching. That would be like studying classical guitar with Andre Segovia.
George had some very, very great taste in guitars, too. That guitar that he plays on "And I Love Her," that's a Jose Ramirez classical guitar. That's not your average rock and roller picking up an instrument, this is somebody who had some very good tastes in instruments.
WW: Do you have to draw on some of that instrumentation during your live performances?
JB: Yeah, that's what we all go for. We do "And I Love Her," mostly it's going to be on my steel string, but I'll put my hands way up the neck as opposed to toward the sound hole to try to emulate the nylon guitar sound. I also play guitar synthesizer in the band as well.
We're a quintet, and our keyboard player plays percussion in the earlier stuff, or hand claps. As we get full on into the era of Sgt. Pepper's, you get really a lot more from him. I kind of complement that in a smaller way. I'm playing some of the parts. In order for us to sound true, those instruments can't be tuned perfectly - it sounds too correct. If you take a guitar synth and throw that into the mix, it sounds like the two instruments playing together.
WW: The revival of this music seems to be cyclical, I mean it seems that every couple of years there's some event that puts it out into the forefront. Right now, people are talking about the release of the new Rock Band game and the remastering of the catalogue. Do you see a boom in audience response when these kind of things happen?
JB: You see that all along. Paul McCartney could be coming through town, and that's also quite an attention-peaking kind of moment. All of it together is even more immense. I just look at their music as something that's akin to Classical music. It's never going to really go away, it's like modern day Classical music. I have a feeling that it's going to be here for many, many generations. We're fortunate to be playing this music, not only for the popularity of it, but for the essence of it.