The Beatles at the Sheldonian Theatre? Psychedelic-acid music at Christopher Wren's first work of architecture? Next thing they'll be putting on Haydn at the Moth Club, Hackney or Beethoven at the Brixton O2. Still, here were the Oxford Beatles for the whole of Revolver and Sergeant Pepper and all tickets sold ages ago. I heard the band play Sergeant Pepper, The Beatles' eighth studio album, at Lady Margaret Hall in November 2017, and it was instructive to see how they'd developed and improved on that performance.
But before the Beatles strolled on, the sight of a whole lorry-load of instruments and kit littering the playing space was an instant reminder of how far in these two albums the Beatles strayed away from the narrow path of guitars-and drums-combo. Alas, this exciting prospect was a bit dashed by a dampening announcement forbidding anyone from dancing, followed by a laboured intro by compère Layla al-Katib, barely audible in the Upper Gallery, so by the time Revolver got under way the band already had a bit of ground to make up.
Taxman, complaining about 95% supertax, featured solid bass and the first taste of the multi-voice harmonies that would feature strongly later. Eleanor Rigby, with its famously sawing violins and Father McKenzie darning his socks, saw the first intervention by the little orchestra. I'm Only Sleeping, with its guitar part played in reverse, had Chris Baines in a red jacket making an excellent fist of the Lennon nasal tones. The intros by the band were low-key almost to the point of the apologetic – no sign of the Lennon caustic cynicism or the group's collective, madcap playfulness. But then the band told me later that they were ignoring Beatle mops and faux-Liverpool accents in favour of placing the full spotlight on the music itself – fair enough.
After we struggled through Yellow Submarine – it has to be the worst song in the canon alongside its fellow submersible Octopus' Garden – variety arrived in the form of Veena and Janan Sathindran on tablas and sitar for Love You To , a kind of dry run for Sergeant Pepper's Within You Without You. The undoubted star element of Revolver was Riaz Ahmed's voice – clear, of perfect pitch and fully up to the challenge of reproducing the range of McCartney's voice over more than four octaves.
After the interval the band were men transformed, laying into the opening Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band track at full bore. Greg Hooper on keyboards, backed up by Lauren Spiceley and Karina Bell, produced a marvellously swirling and ebbing sound enveloping the plasticine porters with looking-glass eyes in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, before Riaz stepped up and delivered a moving She's Leaving Home. The extraordinary variety of material had this ballad book-ended on one side by the LSD-inspired Fixing a Hole and at the other by For the Benefit of Mr Kite!, complete with steam-organ effect, referencing an 1843 circus poster that took John Lennon's fancy.
A new Greg Hooper arrangement of Strawberry Fields Forever with its dissonant melody notes did justice to what Lennon called his greatest Beatles achievement. How well I recall the rapturous bewilderment on its release almost exactly 53 years ago today. The band moved smartly on to the jaunty When I'm 64 and then came the crowning glory of A Day in the Life with its 18-member orchestral glissandos and crunching, final E-major chord.
Great stuff, and the band's moving on to picking apart and putting back together Abbey Road for this coming November. I can't wait!