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Rock ’n’ Roll Replay

First there's that familiar "suuuuuuump," then the rattle, followed by the first verse: "Here come old flat top, he come groovin' up slowly..." and then "Come Together," the leadoff track from what's arguably the Beatles' most impressive masterpiece, Abbey Road, begins ricocheting from the speakers of Hard Rock's Paradise Theater as the audience erupts in cheers. As the song gels with its unmistakable groove, every note and nuance is so letter-perfect, it could easily be the actual album that's playing through the sound system.

But this isn't the album, at least not a physical disc or MP3 digital file. It's a live concert, and there are actual musicians on stage... though it's not the Fab Four, of course. More like an anonymous five... or six... or eight, depending on which song is being performed. And here, in the intimate environs of the 200-seat theater, the band is replicating Abbey Road so well, the audience is awestruck by its accuracy.

Welcome to the latest installment in Hard Rock's Classic Albums Live, a rotating series of concerts that re-create some of the greatest albums in the history of popular music. Previous performances have featured the works of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac, all in an attempt to mine the music that forms the staples of practically every Baby Boomer's record library.

Vocalist, keyboard player, guitarist, and de facto musical director Nick Hildyard has been with the series almost since the beginning. It was four and a half years ago when he auditioned for Classic Albums Live's founder, Craig Martin, by singing Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" over the phone that, in turn, led Martin to hire him on the spot. Like most of the 120 musicians Martin employs, Hildyard's based in Toronto, but he's performed many of the albums in the company's repertoire throughout North America, including, in recent months, the shows here at Hard Rock. Even so, he still finds the task challenging.

"There's a lot of pressure," Hildyard concedes. "There's so much detail in this music. If we miss something, the audience will definitely catch it and call us on it later.

Those who haven't witnessed one of these performances might be forgiven for thinking that it's just another cover group, not unlike the hordes of local bar bands.

"It's the same thing as going to hear a concert where Mozart is performed with an orchestra — why is that any different?" Martin asks incredulously whenever those comparisons are brought up. "This is the real deal, the best musicians. They play like zombies, note for note. They don't talk to the audience, they don't jump around, they don't wear tinted wigs. We're not interested in self-serving rock-star egos. We're only interested in the music. That's what's sacred to us and sacred to our audience."

A 47-year-old self-professed "borderline hippie" and an avid album collector, Martin conceived the idea six years ago when he himself was playing in one of two Rolling Stones tribute bands in his native Toronto. While the competition dressed up and created a fully produced stage show, Martin's band focused only on the music, eventually taking on entire albums like Exile on Main Street. "I was fed up seeing this other group sticking bananas down their pants and making all the same old mistakes," he recalls. "It really jerked my gherkin in the wrong way."

Encouraged by the people who came to their Stones shows, he came up with the idea of doing albums by other bands. Eventually, he recruited musicians like Hildyard and hired an agent who helped secure bookings throughout Canada and eventually Stateside as well.

These days, Classic Albums Live racks up more than 300 performances a year playing in cities throughout North America and staking ongoing gigs like this one at Hard Rock in Hollywood. Aside from the fact that it's giving him a good living, Martin maintains his real mission is simply to pass on the music. He oozes such passion and fervor when he's speaking about it that he's become an evangelist of sorts, a man determined to give people who grew up listening to these albums that initial thrill all over again.

"Music brings out the best in people," Martin says. "I still believe in the power of song to heal the world. There's no better way to bring people together than through a mutual love of music."

If Martin seems prone to spewing hyperbole, there's no denying the opportunity he's given his musicians, most of whom heard about his efforts through word of mouth and contacted him directly via phone or email. "These are guys that sat in their bedrooms growing up, learning these albums lick for lick. They're musicians in their 20s, 30s, even their 40s... at a point in their careers where they've given up on the dream of being rock stars. So we weed out the sick, the old, the frosted tinted hair. We pick them up, dust them off, put them on stage, and pay them to do what they love."

Classic Albums Live has, by Martin's count, covered nearly a hundred discs so far, and while most of them are anywhere between three and four decades removed, they have tossed current releases by Radiohead, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and U2 into the rotation. And although audiences are often mesmerized by performances of well-worn opuses like Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side of the Moon ("We had 30 alarm clocks going off simultaneously! People were freaking out!"), not all of Martin's choices have been as well-received. He says he was dismayed that their takes on Michael Jackson's Thriller and Prince's Purple Rain were met largely with indifference. "I was surprised that music lovers were still so segregated and so fragmented," he laments in retrospect.

Likewise, covering more current albums by bands that are still touring and offering their own music firsthand hasn't garnered much interest, he says, citing Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run as an example. He has received some compliments, albeit indirectly, from the musicians he's mined. "Brian May of Queen heard we were covering A Night at the Opera — which is like algebra; it's that tough — and told the person he was talking to, 'What were they thinking? The guy must have a drinking problem.' John Paul Jones heard we did Led Zeppelin IV and supposedly said, 'Good bloody luck. Good bloody luck!' "

With plans to tour Europe in 2010, Martin has huge hopes for the future. "My ultimate dream is that someday Paul McCartney or Jimmy Page will tell me, 'We want to thank you for treating our music with such respect and carrying it on.' " Maybe they'll also thank Martin for that nudge in their royalty checks as well. "People come up to us after our concerts and ask where they can buy a CD of the show," Martin muses. "I tell them go to the record store and buy the original album."

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Lee Zimmerman