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    Photo by Chris Witzke

    One of the first CDs Mark Heidinger ever purchased was the Beatles’ Past Masters, Volume Two. He can still remember hearing “Hey Jude” for the first time, when he was 14 or 15. He was sitting with a friend in the backseat of a car, somewhere between his Jessamine County home in central Kentucky and Lexington, his dad at the wheel. “As the outro was winding down, my dad glanced back at us and declared the song ‘melodious.’ It was the first time I’d heard that word used,” Heidinger says. “A lot of things can be melodic, but to my dad’s ears, and mine ever since, the Beatles were…melodious.”

    Twenty-five years later, Heidinger and his band Vandaveer got to collaborate with a Beatle. In September, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr released Give More Love, which includes Vandaveer as the backing band on new versions of “Photograph” (from Starr’s 1973 album Ringo) and “Don’t Pass Me By” (from the Beatles’ White Album).

     “It’s a pretty surreal — I keep using that word, but that’s what it was: a surreal experience,” Heidinger says.

     Vandaveer formed in the mid-2000s, out of a folk collective in Washington, D.C., called the Federal Reserve, which is how Heidinger, who sings and plays guitar and keys, met vocalist Rose Guerin and multi-instrumentalist J.Tom Hnatow. Lexington-based Robby Cosenza, who plays drums and harmonica, joined Vandaveer after connecting with Heidinger through a project called the Apparitions. (A fifth member, Justin Craig, is part of the band but didn’t contribute to the Starr recordings.) Over 10 years, the band has explored different folk sounds — from melancholy to sanguine, always with Guerin and Heidinger’s harmonizing as the anchor — and in 2016, a year after Heidinger relocated to Louisville from D.C., Vandaveer released The Wild Mercury.


    Photo: Mark Heidinger of Louisville band Vandaveer.

    How does a Kentucky-based band get to collaborate with a rock ‘n’ roll icon? “Weird, random acts of kindness,” Heidinger says. A Vandaveer fan in Brooklyn who had followed the band since the beginning happened to be a publicist representing some big names — including Paul Simon and…Ringo Starr. She got Vandaveer’s music in front of Starr, who invited the band to perform at his annual Peace & Love birthday bash. On Starr’s 76th birthday — July 7, 2016 — Vandaveer played “Photograph” and “Don’t Pass Me By” from the steps of Capitol Records in Los Angeles for a crowd of about 300. “The scale from afar felt pretty intimidating,” Heidinger says, “but as soon as we arrived it felt small and communal. It was a pretty folksy event.” (The other performers were the rock band Alberta Cross — who also ended up recording a track for Give More Love — and Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics.)

    Heidinger’s only interaction with the Beatle came while Heidinger’s son left the stage after helping Starr throw Peace & Love bracelets to the crowd. (All Heidinger remembers: “He’s a disarmingly sweet person.”) At one point during the after-party, Hnatow came running to find Heidinger. In one of the studios, Hnatow had bumped into legendary (and octogenarian) recording engineer/record producer Al Schmitt, who had been working on a Frank Sinatra reissue. “Frank Sinatra’s voice was just isolated,” Heidinger says. “An iconic, timeless voice being remixed and re-mastered right there.”

     


     

    A couple of months after Vandaveer’s “Peace & Love” performance, Starr’s camp reached out, asking if the band would be interested in recording the songs from the birthday bash for possible inclusion on a future album. “We thought: That sounds wonderful and exciting,” Heidinger says, laughing.

     Vandaveer stepped into the studio in late summer 2016 — at Lexington’s Shangri-La Productions, where the band has recorded all of its albums — and did both covers in about three days. “We took some chances on some things,” Heidinger says, mentioning a resonator guitar and a harmonica solo. “It was our interpretations of the songs.

    “I still can’t quite believe that it all came about the way it did. It was quite casual for something that feels momentous for us.”

    After sending in their tracks, the band waited a year before learning their work had made it onto Give More Love. Starr made the announcement on his 77th birthday. Three weeks before the album’s September release, Vandaveer got a preview. “The instructions were to send all the multi-tracks. At that point, all bets were off as to what the final mix might end up sounding like,” Heidinger says. “We were pleasantly surprised as how true to the spirit of what we sent in it was.”

    Heidinger says the sound of his band’s contributions “fits into the greater picture of what Vandaveer does.” But this being a Beatle and all: “You don’t want to do anything blasphemous with the source material.”

    This originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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