Fifteen Beatles classics interpreted by a long-running Gypsy-swing outfit: It’s a simple idea that yields rich results on John Paul George & Django, the 14th album from the Hot Club of San Francisco. HCSF lead guitarist Paul Mehling first took up his instrument at the age of 6, after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and while the album features plenty of virtuosic playing, the emphasis is on affectionate presentation of some of the most unbreakable melodies in popular music.
The playlist foregoes obvious choices in favor of tunes specially suited to the Hot Club style. McCartney’s Gallic-flavored “Michelle” is a given, with the band effortlessly evoking the café sounds that likely inspired Paul himself. George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” propelled by Sam Rocha’s thumping bass, finds its highlights in Mehling’s unexpected quotations of Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” and lyrics translated into French by rhythm guitarist Isabelle Fontaine (who shares the effervescent trio vocal with Mehling and Rocha). “Julia,” with Rocha’s groaning arco undercurrents and Evan Price’s seductive violin and keening saw, touches the mournful beauty of John Lennon’s original. The band pays inventive tribute to the album’s other namesake artist with a churning medley of “Hey Jude” and Django Reinhardt’s “Duke & Dukie.”
The most whimsical moment finds Price joining guest Jeff Magidson for a melodica duet of “Yellow Submarine,” making the song sound more than ever like an authentic sea shanty, while Mehling, Fontaine and rhythm guitarist Jordan Samuels conjure the Gypsy-folk lament hiding within the ethereal “Because.” The album reaches its zenith with a lush, heart-tugging version of “The Fool on the Hill.” Rocha’s arco blends with delicately plucked guitar, bittersweet melodica and Price’s sensitive reading of McCartney’s melody for a rendition that may not quite match the original recording for elegiac beauty, but comes awfully close.