If you’re as obsessed with the Beatles as I am, the Fest for Beatles Fans is the real “Happiest Place on Earth.” Three days of hanging out with thousands of your closest Beatle-freak friends, surrounded by music and a vibe of peace and love, is an experience like no other. Recapping every incredible thing I did and saw would take waaaayyy too much time, so here are just a few reasons why the Fest is the best weekend of the year for Beatle People.
If you’re coming to a Beatles festival, the music better be both plentiful and awesome, and the Chicago Fest didn’t disappoint! The Fest’s house band, Liverpool, played huge concerts every evening, one marking the historic Shea Stadium concert, which happened 50 years ago that night, and another celebrating the film Help!‘s 50th anniversary. The final concert ended with the Fest’s musical guests, including the Hollies’ Terry Sylvester and the inimitable Mark Hudson, rocking out to a giant Beatles mega-mix. The audience and the performers were bursting with energy, with Fest-goers partying well into the night.
But the mainstage is only part of the massive amount of music at this three-day Beatles orgy. Many more bands play in the Fest’s more intimate venue, the Apple Jam Stage, where the deep cuts and inventive approaches to this familiar music are not to be missed. The fun and experimental sets included Gigi Wong-Monaco’s Beatles Uke Strum and the Yellow Submorons (a Rutles tribute!!). So whatever you want to see — even if you never knew you wanted to see it — someone’s playing it, somewhere at the Fest. And then, there are the jam sessions. These are truly awesome, with attendees gathered around the hotel, playing and singing Beatles songs until dawn. More than one Fest-goer said it’s one of the main reasons to come year after year, and I totally get that. Unfortunately, it spoiled me — I’m pretty disappointed that I don’t have a jam session in my living room right now.
It’s so annoying when you really want to discuss something — say, the early Beatles records on the Vee Jay label — but none of your real-life friends are interested in talking about it. Does this ever happen to you? It sure happens to me — everywhere except at the Fest! There’s no other place to find such a huge concentration of Beatles experts, authors, and historians, eager to get in the weeds about the most minute details and facts. It’s astounding how many people are still discovering new things about the Beatles and contributing their stories. This year’s highlights included Ivor Davis, a British reporter who traveled with the Beatles on the ’64 American tour (and wrote an excellent book about it), and Vivek Tiwary, author of The Fifth Beatle, a graphic novel about Brian Epstein that will soon become a motion picture.
REBEAT’s own were well-represented too. John Lennon expert and REBEAT contributor Jude Southerland Kessler, along with author and historian Kit O’Toole, held a fascinating live podcast analyzing John Lennon’s protest songs (you can hear a recording of the session on Jude’s radio show/podcast, The John Lennon Hour). And Susan Ryan moderated two women’s historians panels — one on the 50th anniversary of Help! and another on the 20th anniversary of the Beatles Anthology — that REBEAT’s editor Allison Johnelle Boron and I were both part of.
But the sessions aren’t just scholarly! There are all kinds of experimental and off-the-beaten-path activities, like Beatles yoga, a skipping club, zumba, transcendental meditation classes, and Recipe Records author Lanea Stagg handing out homemade chocolates she calls “Savoy Truffles” (yum). An inter-generational group discussed the differences in the first-, second- and third-generation fan experiences, and Sara Schmidt, owner of the blog Meet the Beatles for Real, hosted a storytelling session for fans to share their personal encounters with a Beatle. A gratitude wall let fans express what the Beatles and the Fest means to them.
The concentration of Beatles merchandise and personal collections is unparalleled. A giant marketplace hosted dozens of booths filled with original Beatles photos, collectables, books, and art, both new (get your own custom-made Beatles suit) and old (original lunch boxes, pins, and Beatles dolls). A few vendors displayed some of the rarest (and most expensive) memorabilia objects on the market. One particularly fascinating item at the 2015 NY fest were the original title cards superimposed over each Beatle as he was introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show (who can forget seeing, “Sorry girls, he’s married” over John?); many similarly-exotic finds were on display in Chicago. I’ll never be able to afford these artifacts, but the chance to view them in person is a singular experience.
If you’re as into the Beatles as I am, there’s nothing better than being surrounded by thousands of rabid Beatles fans for three days. Nothing. There’s so much energy and excitement coming from every direction, and from every generation. It should really be called Crack for Beatles Fans.
And you know what’s not at the Fest? Snark. Hate-watching. Cynicism. Fans come to let their Beatle-freak flags fly without hardness or irony, and with complete dedication to immersing themselves in the experience. For three days, I didn’t watch television, read the news, or worry about any of the negativity in the outside world. Instead, I hung out with lots of fellow Beatle fans, reveling in the greatest music of all time and meeting new friends that share this obsession in a way few others in my life do.
Are there things that attendees want to change? Absolutely. Anything that people care about this much (and Beatle fans care about this stuff) will illicit strong opinions and generate lots of discussion. But that’s wonderful, because the Fest is essential to bringing the fandom together for the next 50 years.
As for me, I’m still going through Fest withdrawal, but I’m already planning my trip to the next Fest for Beatles Fans, in the New York metro area, April 15–17, 2016. Keep up with the Fest on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.