Thank God for TimeHop. Save for a handful of first-gen smartphone photos taken in a dimly lit Tree House in 2010, we wouldn’t have much proof of the first Beatles Marathon. Now that it’s turned into a spectacle of creative talent and willful planning, set against the reverent backdrop of The Bluestone stage, no one needs any proof of its existence. Still, if you tried to tell someone that one man named Joe (now getting by with the help of 50-some friends) plays every Beatles song in chronological order in one day, they’re likely to be a bit skeptical. It’s a tall tale—of a silly bar challenge turned cathartic endurance test—but not one that’s embellished. The Beatles Marathon is very real—as much as Paul is still very much alive. This month, as Sergeant Peppercorn’s band hits its seventh season, we celebrate a new cultural phenomenon for Columbus—a holiday tradition that has something for the whole family.
And we’re doing so by talking to the man himself about how an event he wasn’t even sure he’d do more than once—one that puts tremendous strain on his family at the most stressful time of the year—has come to define a large part of his life and his worldview.
hen it all started, Peppercorn was at a similar crossroads to his musical heroes. A long-time bartender at iconic bar Andyman’s Treehouse (later The Treehouse and now Tree Bar), Peppercorn was devastated by the death of the bar’s namesake, John “Andyman” Davis, beloved Columbus radio icon. Both Catholics and massive Beatles fans, the late Davis became an important ear for Peppercorn, who was just embarking on life as a father.
“I was originally only supposed to play The White Album. That first year was very emotional because Andy had passed away that summer. I had this very vivid memory of he and I singing through Abbey Road together. He knew all the words, and I would fumble for the right chords.”
So, what started as a tribute to his friend and mentor quickly grew into a personal challenge that Peppercorn hurled himself into, deciding he would play ALL the songs in one night—on less than a month of rehearsal.
“I was terrified that first year … afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it, and that no one would show up. When I started the show… the moment I started The Beatles Marathon, I went into I Saw Her Standing There, and [then Tree House owner] Phil [Palma] and I were the only ones in the bar. Colin Gawel and my friend Vu showed up three songs in, but for the first hour it was the four of us. The whole thing felt so silly and stupid.”
By the halfway point of the show, word had spread around the Columbus music community. People packed themselves into every corner; where the audience stopped and the performance area began was a constant blur. Those in the crowd (maybe 60-70 people by the end) were not only witness to quite a feat, but participants, too—guest stars on sing-a-longs to help carry a hoarse, harried Peppercorn over the finish line. Flooded with memories of the late Davis, Peppercorn was overwhelmed by the powerful emotion these songs brought out of his friends—and himself.
“I started tearing up when everyone sang together on “Because” … I needed that emotional release. I had no choice but to connect with my life in a very visceral way after having a child, and I needed to do that in the same way with music … this was my way of doing that.”
After pulling off the initial feat, the Marathon’s subsequent years faced the dual challenge of handling a massive song catalog with better results, and accommodating the hordes of people now eager to join the local Beatlemania that they missed out on the first time. A set band was established, featuring members from Peppercorn’s own band The Whiles (Chris Bolognese, Jake Remley, and brother Matt Peppercorn), and a hand-drafted selection of other local all-stars from Treehouse favorites like The Receiver (Jesse Cooper), Ghost Shirt (Branden Barnett, Sam Kim, Dave Murphy), and Low Men (Tommy Young).
In addition to filling out the musician roster, years three and four, held at Kobo (now Spacebar), helped add a support staff to the endeavor—Peppercorn credits then owner, Jacob Wooten with taking administrative and production duties on himself. Lines for the show—now hitting its stride, and not just hurdling through the material—stretched down the block.
“The third year was the first time I realized that we could play the songs really well. The first two years you could play the songs fast and skip parts. When you make everything correct it takes longer. [Jacob] made it so all we had to worry about was playing the music.”
But Kobo couldn’t hold the growing phenomenon, and Wooten, in the spirit of furthering an event now beloved to him and so many others, helped the show move to The Bluestone, the massive former church on Broad Street. There, the audience ballooned to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people, and the show swelled right along with it. The sheer premise of a 215-song concert wasn’t the only immense challenge now facing Peppercorn’s crew.
And we do mean crew.
Any event of this size would be a massive undertaking, but the logistics of a 12-hour marathon present intricacies and statistics that are truly staggering.
Throughout the course of the show, there are anywhere from 15 to 20 musicians entering and exiting the stage, playing roughly 25 guitars, a single drum set, two bass guitars, and three keyboards that run through 40 different configurations and 60-70 individual sounds; as well as a host of auxiliary instruments, including violins, trumpets, and tambourines. Assuming all of the people and parts are in working order, there’s also the issue of timing. This isn’t a show with rambling monologues, or even much witty banter. A performance of this magnitude must be timed down to the second; with so many songs to get through, the transitions become just as important as the songs themselves. If you suppose that between each song the band takes one minute to reset, that means an additional 3.5 hours. Cut that down to 30 seconds, and you’ve got 1.8 hours. Cut that in half again, and you’re at their target: 15 seconds—a mere 54 minutes of rest throughout the course of the show.
Wooten remains behind the scenes, helping sell merch and doing anything else the band needs to have a suaccessful show; while local music aficionado Rikki C. donates portions of his personal guitar collection, and plays guitar tech throughout the course of the event.
To see this intricate dance play out on stage is both fascinating and astonishing, but it doesn’t begin to tell the full story. Rehearsals begin four months in advance, last as long as seven hours, happen once or twice a week, and can involve 10 or more musicians. By the time they hit the stage, they have invested hundreds of hours.
“You’re on a big stage—you have to put on a show. Last year was the first time it all came together. It feels like it’s pushed to the absolute limit.”
There is no question that Peppercorn—and the rest of the group—live for the satisfaction that comes with pushing it to that theoretical limit, but that satisfaction comes with a very real physical, mental, and emotional toll, and the payoff can be fleeting.
“It was so scary two and half hours in, to realize I already feel worn out and I have 10 more hours” he says “hour four or five your extremities start to feel numb and you enter into another state of being. After six or seven it gets a lot easier. Hours 11 and 12 are very painful. Having this extremely intense joyful experience, and then it’s like I wake up in this desolate winter Midwest wasteland. It’s hard to get to be a rockstar for a day and then go back to being nothing. I’m not complaining—it’s great to have a normal life and then experience what I get to the day of the show, but the transition both into and out of the show is very jarring.”
Peppercorn has spent most of his adult life straddling two worlds: husband, father, and devout Catholic; and fun-loving musician and bartender, working and performing in bars around the city. While the two are not mutually exclusive, having a foot firmly planted on each side can be tough. Joe is quick, both on stage and off, to credit the sacrifice of his wife Juliette in the success of the show.
“I remember the first year telling Juliette: ‘This is going to put you through a lot, but if this works, it really could be something.’ I think it’s a whole lot for her because once or twice a week I’m gone at practice and then my mind is somewhere else for months … part of doing the show is obsessing over it, and I think that takes a toll. She’s always on board, but it’s a strain. Last year, Christmas was not a lot of fun. We melted down as a family. Mostly what I remember was how great the show was, but those days leading up to the show were absolutely brutal.”
There does not exist a more crucial support staff to the Marathon than the families of the musicians involved, the total group now resembling a rambling tent revival in size. Juliette and the wives of many other band members have formed a seasonal social group amongst themselves, only semi-jokingly referred to as the Beatles Widows Club. In 2013, Matt Peppercorn’s wife Ellen held down a dramatic situation when their infant daughter had a brief medical episode during the show; she convinced him to stay on stage and finish out the remaining 100 songs while she sent updates via text to the phone stashed next to his pedalboard.
While the average audience member may be unaware of how much self-sacrifice and sweat goes into delivering 12 hours of retro euphoria, that familial feeling does shine through.
The two worlds that Peppercorn and the members of his band try to balance each year are mirrored in the event itself: the first few hours are filled with children dancing, infants bouncing on the knees of parents, and grandparents singing the words to “Can’t Buy Me Love”—inherently learned like nursery rhymes from a different era. By the time Sgt. Pepper kicks in, the crowd has grown (up); the children have been dropped off at the sitters, and their parents are returning to stick it out until the end. With each passing hour, more and more people crowd onto the floor, singing, dancing, drinking, and cheering—anticipating a cathartic end to a moving evening.
A palpable sense of urgency always appears in the show’s final moments—eager fans huddling closer and closer to the stage. They scream each and every word to the Abbey Road medley, their voices cracking as they hold out the first syllable of the monstrous chorus to “Golden Slumbers”—giving their maestro the same much-needed lift the crowd gave him years before.
Two, sometimes three, generations of people sway back and forth with their arms around each other, celebrating the music they love and the monumental feat they’ve witnessed.
And, in the end…
“I hope this show will be a thing of unity and maybe a small glimpse into the possibility of coming together in optimism and love. I don’t mean to be delusional—it’s a little show in a little city—but for me, it’s going to mean a lot.”
This year, thankfully, the Peppercorns and their extended musical family will get to lick their musical wounds with enough time to have a Christmas like the rest of us, as the seventh annual Beatles Marathon takes place on December 10 at The Bluestone, starting at noon. For more, visit liveatthebluestone.com.
By Chris Manis and Travis Hoewischer