Behind the Scenes of Classic Albums Live

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Nick Hildyard, singer/musician of Classic Albums Live

Cover bands—or their more-artisanal cousins, tribute bands—tend to come and go, but Classic Albums Live has shown a remarkable longevity. Dedicated to live “note for note, cut for cut” performances of classic rock’s seminal LPs, the venture is entering its 17th year under the stewardship of founder Craig Martin.

The project’s repertory is unimpeachable—Beatles masterpieces like Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, Pink Floyd benchmarks like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, David Bowie’s movement-defining The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust—and growing. With its rotating ensemble of approximately 35 players and numerous guest artists as needed, Classic Albums Live (CAL) is now a year-round behemoth; for one weekend in January, it will be performing eight times across North America.

South Florida, in particular, has been good to CAL, and vice versa; one of its bands just replicated Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes last weekend in Delray Beach, and this Saturday, they’ll be tackling the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed at the Casino at Dania Beach.

Nick Hildyard

“I usually play the harmonica parts, or the piano or organ on Let it Bleed,” says Nick Hildyard, of Davenport, Florida, a spokesperson and veteran member of the CAL players. “It’s a great album with timeless songs on it. To me, it’s one of their most amazing records. It features one of the greatest keyboard players of that era, Billy Preston. … There’s some great musicianship on that record, in addition to it being a classic rock album. I kind of wish I was on it, but I’ll be in Michigan doing Fleetwood Mac.”

When I mentioned a particularly vivid rave from a Rolling Stone review of Let it Bleed—“Whether it was spiritual, menstrual or visceral, the Stones made sure you went home covered in blood”—Hildyard added, “That makes sense. Playing ‘Midnight Rambler’ on harmonica, my lips left the stage in blood. I can say that literally.”

Going the extra mile—physically, emotionally, mentally—to flawlessly re-create such iconic music has long been embedded into the CAL mission. Sometimes that means reproducing material live that the original bands themselves never deigned to accomplish because it simply would have been too difficult to pull off.

“We do ‘Prophet’s Song,’ on Queen’s Night at the Opera album,” he says. “We use three vocalists to simulate the triple delays that they used in the recording. And Queen never performed that song. I’m not even sure they performed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the middle section. We use nine voices to pull that off. It’s easy to get pulled off pitch a little bit when you’re doing that a cappella part of ‘Prophet’s Song.’ So we always are super-excited when we come into the chord at the end and we’re in the right key. I’ve done it many times, and it’s still a challenge for me every time we do it.”

Hildyard has been a member of CAL since its third concert. For all these years, it has remained dedicated to preserving the music above all else, which is why you won’t see period costuming or distracting laser shows at CAL events. “We would prefer a light guy who doesn’t do much—wash the stage in a little bit of color, we don’t want any moving lights,” he says. “We don’t want anybody leaving our show saying, ‘wow, did you see the lights? Or did you see that costume?’ It’s about the music. We want people leaving marveling at that, and nothing more.”

While CAL’s repertory continues to grow, the criteria for selecting its material is an inexact science. “For the most part, I hate to say we look at the commerciality of an album, but it’s ones that have stood the test of time, that are still being bought,” Hildyard says. “People are still buying Zeppelin albums, still buying Floyd albums, still buying Beatles albums, still buying Tom Petty records. So one of the criteria is the longevity of the artist, and their status within the pantheon of music.

“There’s some artists out there, like Styx, that have made a lot of great music, but they’re out there touring, sounding just as good as they’ve always sounded. They’ve got a great catalog, but I’m not sure if we could play two hours’ worth of amazing hits. If it’s not Styx performing them, no one’s going to care. … So it’s not just the best-selling artists of all time; it’s also artists that have maintained this popularity throughout time. Not just popularity within their age group or generation, but new kids.”

Nick Hildyard

This is one reason why Hildyard is delighted that vinyl LPs have made such a comeback in recent years; Rolling Stone reported late last year that vinyl is on pace to outsell CDs for the first time since 1986. Contrary to the LP’s demise in the age of streaming, the format appears to be achieving a renewed popularity.

“I was excited when I found out my 14-year-old nephew got a turntable for his birthday, and is now buying albums—classic rock records I used to buy, like Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin IV,” he says. “It’s not just the magic of putting the disc on the turntable and playing it and listening to that kind of audio quality; it’s also the whole experience of opening an album and looking at the cover and the artwork. I think it’s amazing that there’s been a resurgence of that, and I’ll be honest—I have never been one of those guys that bought into ‘rock and roll is dead,’ and the solo is dead. It will never die. There’s no way. It brings too much joy to people’s lives.”

Classic Albums Live’s Let it Bleed is at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Casino at Dania Beach, 301 E. Dania Beach Blvd. Tickets run $17-$50. Call 877/788-8208 or visit casinodaniabeach.com.