Do you feel a disturbance in the Force? The Bay Area’s Awesöme Orchestra has seized hold of two beloved cultural touchstones, compressing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Star Wars into a mind-boggling singularity, warping the very fabric of the universe. Reality as we know it might be forever altered. Collaborating with the pop culture savants Palette-Swap Ninja, Awesöme Orchestra presents the galactic premiere performance of Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans Saturday at Hertz Hall. Audience members are encouraged to come in costume.
A fundraiser for the collective ensemble, Awesöme Orchestra’s Session 62 opens with John Williams’s Star Wars Suite for Orchestra, followed by a playthrough of Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans in its entirety. Boston-based keyboardist Jude Kelley and East Bay vocalist Dan Amrich, aka Palette-Swap Ninja, released the album online last year to mark the golden anniversary of the 1967 Beatles masterpiece and the 40th anniversary of Star Wars. Hailed by obsessives of both era-defining phenomena, the project recounts the space opera tale of Star Wars: The New Hope with an ingenious track-by-track recreation of Sgt. Pepper (sing the line “Princess Leia’s stolen Death Star plans” to the melody that accompanies the opening line “We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for a glimpse at Palette-Swap Ninja’s epochal achievement, or better yet, listen to the whole shebang).
The story behind Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans, like so many tales of unaccountable inspiration, starts in an ‘80s cover band. Kelley and Amrich played together in Fast Times, a band that still haunts the Bay Area music scene. In the late 1990s — Fast Times was an early adopter of 80s’ nostalgia — they’d carpool together from the Peninsula to the band’s rehearsals in Concord, and bonded over their shared obsession with video games (Kelly worked for a video game company and Amrich covered gaming for a magazine). They talked often about creating their own Weird Al Yankovic-style songs about video games, but didn’t actually start Palette-Swap Ninja until Kelley had moved to Boston and taken a positions as a chemistry professor at College Of The Holy Cross in Worcester.
They launched Palette-Swap Ninja in 2007 and recorded several pieces, but the collaboration foundered when they sought to create an ambitious parody of The Who’s Tommy.
“We tried to make that work for a year and it just didn’t come together,” says Amrich from his home in Richmond. “We were all walking around Boston on a visit and my wife said, ‘You guys are doing this all wrong. To do something this big, it has to be about something that matters enough to people, not necessarily on the level of Sgt. Pepper’s mixed with Star Wars but something like that,’ and you could almost see the cartoon lightbulbs go off over our heads. By the end of lunch we had the title and the basic sketch. On the Millennium Falcon when Ben is trying to teach Luke about the Force, ‘Within You Without You,’ and it culminates with this giant explosion, the chord from ‘A Day in the Life.’”
The journey from inspiration to execution turned into an odyssey for two perfectionists working from opposite coasts. More than their own exacting natures, Amrich and Kelley knew they were dancing on holy ground where a misstep could bring down the fiery wrath of the internet on their heads. “You will find no fans more critical than Star Wars and Beatles fans,” Amrich says. “They will take you out, so you better bring it. Jude and I both have jobs and families and we thought it was worth taking our time to do it right.”
They spent more than a year working on the lyrics alone, and created the recordings by sending files back and forth. They bought the same software and interfaces to streamline the process. The plan was to release the album in conjunction with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the project wasn’t near completion. They missed 2016’s Rogue One too. “Seriously, we’ve got to give ourselves a hard deadline,” Amrich says. “We were looking at the spring of 2017 and realized that would be 40th anniversary of Star Wars and 50th of Sgt. Pepper’s a week later.”
With some two million views on Youtube, coverage on NPR, and reverential comments on sites like Gizmodo, Palette-Swap Ninja could rest easy. They had no plan to perform the score live, and turned down several overtures when it was clear presenters expected them to use pre-recorded tracks. But in his day job working for Ubisoft Entertainment, Amrich’s desk is next to his buddy Brian McCune, a founding member of Awesöme Orchestra. He’d been impressed by Princess Leia and when Amrich asked if the orchestra might be interest in performing the work he thought the ensemble’s founding conductor and artistic David Möschler would be game.
“It’s pretty heavy lifting trying to put an entire album on stage,” McCune says. “But since Dan and Jude are on opposite coasts they were very well organized. Dan gave me a flash drive with all of the Logic sessions and all the vocals. I was able to isolate the parts he had created for orchestra. When he’d recorded with real instruments, I had to use the anthology The Beatles: Complete Scores. They are not perfect, but they give you the structure.”
Kelley is flying in for the concert, and Awesöme Orchestra will be augmented by a number of vocalists, including Hannah Wolf, the daughter of legendary singer/songwriter Kate Wolf (she works with McCune and Amrich at Ubisoft). Saturday’s production culminates the wild vision that set Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans in motion.
“When we were recording we wondered if we could ever perform this live, but thought it was a dream,” Amrich says. “It was too ambitious. We even mimicked the stereo mixes from Sgt. Pepper. Where would we ever find an orchestra to tackle this? It turned out to be sitting next to me at work.”