Updated Wed, Dec 7, 2011 9:18 pm
December tends to be a quiet month in Athens, Ohio. Most of the OU students are gone for the winter break, many local businesses close early and one can usually find an uptown parking space (a rarity when school is in session).
So it's always a bit of a shock to find so many people at the annual Lennon Fest.
Since 2000, Eric Leighton (aka "Junebug") has organized the event, which features local musicians performing the music of John Lennon and The Beatles. This year's fest is taking place Saturday, Dec. 10 at The Union and Jackie O's Brew Pub.
I was present for the very first Lennon Fest at The Union, which, although well-attended, was more of an impromptu open stage than an actual show. Eleven years later, the event has grown so much that a second venue was added to accommodate the number of bands and the large crowd.
I caught up with Leighton to talk about the fest, Johnny B, the Lennon Orchestra and the enduring appeal of The Beatles' music.
BG: How did you come up with the idea for the Lennon Fest back in 2000?
EL: It was the 20th anniversary of John Lennon's death and I had always wanted to do some sort of tribute. Scott Winland helped us find a home at The Union, and we were off. The first year we had just a few acts, nothing even remotely organized. I believe we made about $400, much to my surprise. I was concerned about making enough to pay the sound man.
BG: By the second year, the fest had become a benefit for the Johnny B Fund. Can you tell me who Johnny B was and why the fund was set up?
EL: The Johnny B Fund was started after the untimely death in 1994 of my friend and musical colleague, John Bartlett. I checked with local attorney/musician Dave Baer about setting up the fund, and we donated the proceeds from the first fest. We started the fund in order to help young people pay for music lessons. It helps those who have the desire, but not the means, to learn. It also had the unintended consequence of local musicians being paid to teach these young folks.
BG: The fest was held at The Union for the first few years, then it expanded to Jackie O's. It's amazing how many people turn out for the event, especially over winter break.
EL: The first year we had very few acts, just enough to fill the night. Since then, we've outgrown The Union, adding both the Public House and the Brewery rooms at Jackie O's. When we started in 2000, the winter breaks were bereft of entertainment. Lennon Fest created at least one exciting night over break.
The Beatles' music is handed down from one generation to the next, which could explain the verve for the event. Also, with the increase in the number of bands involved, you invariably bring out the friends of those people to hear them, which increases the audience.
Beyond that, everyone knows what great fun it is to be united in song with everyone around. It's inspiring and chill-inducing. There are a number of people that look forward to Lennon Fest every year, and their enthusiasm can be infectious.
BG: You've been playing with a group called the Lennon Orchestra for some time now. A lot of people might not realize just how complex The Beatles' arrangements were, especially the later material. What's it been like playing these songs?
EL: This will be the 11th year I've spent learning new and challenging music created by The Beatles and their various other projects. The Lennon Orchestra sprang into existence because it was easier to have musicians sit in with us and learn a few songs, instead of the other way around.
The current lineup has been together for at least six years. Joey Hebdo sings most of the leads and high parts, and Catfish plays virtually every part on his guitar and sings baritone parts. Dave Baer plays the bass and does surprise vocals, Johnny Marathon contributes a nice collection of lead vocals, guitar and percussion, and I play drums and sing various parts. It's not a note-for-note rendering of the music, nor do we dress the part. We stay faithful to the arrangements where possible, and try to divine the spirit of the song and help bring that to life.
BG: How large is the band's repertoire at this point?
EL: We're close to 100 songs. We've increased our activities from playing once a year to six or seven weekends a year, playing mostly in Athens, Columbus and Pomeroy. It's always great fun, even though the material is challenging. I've come to realize that all the dropped beats and quirky arrangements were designed to keep people from figuring out what they were doing. I've even noticed that they went so far as to play the wrong chords on their television appearances while miming to pre-recorded tracks, just to throw people off the scent. It's pretty funny.
BG: The Lennon Fest has become known as THE Athens event in December. What does it mean to you?
EL: It's a guaranteed good time for all. It's a great time for reflection on the past, enjoyment of the present and hope for times to come. Not only will people enjoy wonderful music from a variety of local musicians, but by attending and supporting the Johnny B Fund, they'll be helping future generations of musicians.
The 12th Annual Lennon Fest begins at 8 p.m. this Saturday at The Union and Jackie O's Brew Pub, both located on West Union Street in Athens. A suggested donation of $5 gains admission to both venues.
Performers include Might Not Matter, Lennon Orchestra, Coolville Hot Club, Broken Ring, Johnny Marathon, Steve Zarate, Emily Prince, Shelby Carter, Nate Brite, Supertape/Bonzai and Dropdead Sons.
For more information, visit the Lennon Fest Facebook event page.