Nutopia is a fictitious country that John Lennon invented and named himself a citizen of during his 1970s battles with the Nixon administration and U.S. immigration authorities. It provides the name for Nu-Utopians, a Lennon tribute band appearing Saturday, April 23, at the Palace Theatre in Manchester.
The seven-piece band, which re-shapes both well-known and obscure Lennon songs into lush acoustic arrangements, originally called itself the John Lennon Song Project — until the former Beatle’s estate politely objected.
“It was totally naïve on our part to think we could take John Lennon’s name and just do what we wanted with it, and they were very nice,” says the group’s co-leader Rex Fowler. “They said, ‘OK, well, finish your tour and then at that point we would like you to stop using the name.’”
The genesis for the band happened when Fowler approached Tom Dean (Devonsquare) with the idea of combining The Beatles’ “I’ll Get You” with Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“One of the reasons I asked Tommy to do this was I heard him play ‘I’ll Cry Instead’ at one of his solo shows,” Fowler says. “It was a cool version, and I knew that our voices complemented one another.”
The two songs, though written a decade apart, share the same opening word — “Imagine” — and the pair found that bringing them together was both easy and exhilarating. Then Dean wrote an arrangement of “Come Together” and “I Am the Walrus.”
“That was when it was like, OK, we’re really on to something here,” recalls Fowler.
Quickly, they came up with enough mini-medleys for an album — “but they’re not just medleys, they’re woven together into a single song,” says Fowler. Released in autumn 2010, Imagined was recently nominated for an Independent Music Award for Best Tribute Album.
The band’s live shows have drawn raves wherever they’ve played.
“The response has been unbelievable,” says Fowler. “The excitement and energy that people are responding with to the songs, I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Fowler, who also performs as one half of the long-running folk duo Aztec Two-Step, is an inveterate Beatles fan. “I was 15 years old when they played Ed Sullivan, so they were my band from beginning to end,” he says, calling Lennon “a secular saint … I just feel by performing his songs we’re really trying to honor the spirit of his music, soul and sensibilities. He was an extraordinary human being — flawed in ways, but that’s what being human is.”
Doing acoustic renditions of Lennon’s songs makes complete sense. “He recorded 70 percent of all the Beatles stuff on acoustic guitars,” says Fowler, who enjoys doing an uncharacteristic homage act. “I never wanted to be a cover band … dressing up in white suits and wigs and granny glasses, but I always had the idea to do acoustic versions of his Beatles [with] the songs stripped down — be true to the melodies but not try to pick every note apart, and do exactly what he did.”
The Nu-Utopians approach includes elements not often heard in Beatles songs, like cello and upright bass and accordion, along with familiar sounds set in new and different roles. “We do use bass and electric guitar but not as a traditional rock instruments,” says Fowler. “Some of these songs are very stripped down, but some are quite lush.”
Fowler is also drawn to Lennon in part because of tragic way he died, shot by a crazed fan in December 1980. “There’s that underlying sadness that I wake up with every day no matter how many years it has been,” he says. “To go out on stage — it’s a palpable, spiritual connection.”
He views the band’s performance as a tribute to Lennon the musician and the man.
“The way he transformed his life and conducted himself was so far ahead of the curve in so many ways. Paul McCartney is a genius no doubt, but it was always John for me,” Fowler says. “I don’t even know why, but he was the one that resonated with me — a spokesman of the band, a sense of humor … it just seemed like the right thing to do. I’ve always considered him the greatest of that band and one of the greatest overall artists that ever lived [and] he was an activist. Not many multi-millionaires that grow up in a fishbowl become activists.”
“But it’s really his songs,” says Fowler finally. “His songs are brilliant and they’re deep.”