Week after week, Ron McNeil and his bandmates go onstage and impersonate four of the most beloved, admired, documented, mythologized, scrutinized, retailed and altogether idolized men of the last century.
He's only too glad that he's not actually one of them.
McNeil, who portrays John Lennon in the Beatles tribute band the Fab Four, can roam through public places and not be mobbed by screaming girls. His bookshelf isn't weighted down by a new "definitive" biography of him every few years. Best of all, he can use modern technology to create sounds live that were once only possible in the studio — and perform them for audiences who listen rather than shriek.
In short, playing Lennon makes for an easier existence than being Lennon for real. So McNeil, who will bring his band to the OC Fair's Pacific Amphitheatre on Saturday, counts himself as having the best of two worlds.
"I'm not sure how much I envied them," said the guitarist, whose current show, "When the Beatles Hit America!" commemorates the 50th anniversary of the group's U.S. debut. "I mean, I envy their talent and their songwriting ability and all those different things — and the ability to keep their band together, really, when you consider all that stuff that was going on, and their ability to carry it through. But I don't think I ever really wished for that.
"I wished to make good music and be a part of it in some way or another. But those four guys — there'll never be anything like that again. That was just a weird blip in time."
That blip in time may have closed forever — could you imagine the world watching with rapt fascination as One Direction made a spiritual pilgrimage to India? — but McNeil and his cohorts earn a steady living honoring its memory. The Fab Four tours year-round and bills itself as the "ultimate tribute" to the Beatles, although, in fairness, a Google search of those words pulls up a multitude of bands.
The group formed about two decades ago when McNeil and Ardy Sarraf, who plays Paul McCartney, separately attended a Beatles convention in Los Angeles. The former had already portrayed Lennon in a tribute band, and when he saw Sarraf singing McCartney's solo hit "Coming Up" onstage, a partnership began brewing in his mind.
"I swear to you, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up," McNeil said. "You could hang a hat on it. It was amazing. I could not believe it. He sounded so much like Paul McCartney, I just couldn't believe it."
The two struck up a friendship and, a year or two later, founded the Fab Four. McNeil and Sarraf — who taught himself to play bass left-handed to better mimic McCartney — became the mainstays of the band while Georges and Ringos changed. The current lineup features Gavin Pring on lead guitar and Erik Fidel on drums.
George Harrison is said to have remarked of himself and his bandmates, "The Beatles will exist without us." Reading the entertainment listings in Southern California alone, it's hard to argue that statement. Rain, a Beatles tribute band that formed in the mid-1970s, performed this spring at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and another tribute band, Abbey Road, recently hit the Queen Mary.
Jason Feddy, a Laguna Beach radio personality who recently became cantor at Temple Isaiah in Newport Beach, has a tribute combo of his own, the Beatroots. Help! — which took its name from a 1965 hit — has performed in Costa Mesa's Concerts in the Park series. And the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts, a magnet high school, has a tradition of playing entire Beatles albums in concert.
For the OC Fair, though, the Fab Four will suffice: This year marks their fifth consecutive and sixth overall summer in Costa Mesa. Lisa Sexton, the talent buyer for the Pacific Amphitheatre, anticipated a larger crowd than usual this time because of the group's recent 50th anniversary, which has been marked by celebrations and a rerelease of the 1964 movie "A Hard Day's Night."
"They sound just like them," she said. "If you're midway in the venue, it looks just like them. It's a wonderful show. It's a feel-good night, for sure."
In recreating the Beatles as a live act, the Fab Four — like many tribute bands — has to tweak history a bit. The real group stopped touring in 1966, which meant that many of its late-period classics never saw the concert stage (an impromptu 1969 London rooftop concert, which spawned "Get Back" and a handful of others, was a semi-exception).
Still, McNeil's band evokes those studio productions as best it can, using synthesized strings for the orchestral buildup on "A Day in the Life" and turning "Hey Jude," whose extended singalong coda seems tailor-made for audience participation, into the closing number.
"What's great is you're able to dial up a sound like the Mellotron for 'Strawberry Fields,' and then, along with the Mellotron, I have some really great low cellos for the rest of the song, and you can split it on the same keyboard — where, in the old days, you weren't able to do that," McNeil said. "Certainly not in the Beatles' days, you weren't able to do that."
If You Go
What: The Fab Four
Where: Pacific Amphitheatre, OC Fair, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 2
Cost: $15 to $32.50
Information: (714) 708-1500 or pacamp.com/pa