Two Of US [photo by Aaron Brown]


Beatlemania sweeps The Region as Hammond prepares for the 6th annual Beatlesfest

John and Paul Vezmar love music. When the brothers opened the Blue Room Cafe in Highland back in January 2006, they were just hoping they could help provide local musicians a quality room to hone their craft.

Since then, many bands have taken advantage of the venue—while the room itself migrated to its current home in downtown Hammond. Somewhere along the way, the Vezmars’ modest ambitions struck a chord, and the little room got a whole lot bigger.

This year, John and Paul will host their sixth Beatles Fest in downtown Hammond. What started as a little tribute to the Beatles has become one of Hammond's biggest annual events. The Rambler took time to talk to John Vezmar about the curious success of a summer festival in the American Midwest centered on a band from Liverpool, England.

Region Rambler: The Beatles in Hammond, Indiana? Why not John Cougar Mellencamp or Guns 'N' Roses? Or maybe most appropriately, Michael Jackson?

John Vezmar: Undoubtedly, there never would be a Blue Room Cafe Beatles Fest if it wasn't for my dad surrounding my brothers and I with the music of The Beatles while growing up. I remember all of us as kids sitting in the living room listening to my dad play "Octopus' Garden" on his old archtop guitar. So when my brother Paul and I opened the Blue Room Cafe with a focus on quality live music, it just seemed natural for us to choose The Beatles for a themed outdoor music festival.

On a somewhat related note, I am confident that those years growing up listening to The Beatles was also actively creating a solid base for us to use in the future when determining quality music from everything else. I can only imagine what I'd think was "good" music these days if it wasn't for The Beatles catalogue there for me as a reference. Can you imagine the horror if it was something like: The Blue Room Cafe presents a Tribute to Maroon 5, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons and More? Ugh.

RR: Why do you think The Beatles still have so much appeal here in the year 2011? (I'm sure John Lennon never would have imagined it.)

JV: I've thought about this a lot before, actually. I think they have such a staying power for a number of reasons. Most apparent to me as of late is their commitment to staying relevant. For example, just think about the "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game. I do not believe that move was just about how much money they were going to make from it. Actually, I looked at that as an investment in maintaining their relevancy with a much younger audience as their original fans become older. 

I think another big reason is because, and on a much more quantified level of course, how I mentioned I was introduced to The Beatles. Last year I had the opportunity to see Paul McCartney live in Nashville, and there were moments when I turned around and was in awe as I scanned the stadium full of people, people old and young, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all packing this stadium to see Paul McCartney. It became evident to me in these moments that all of these younger people had memories just like me of growing up being surrounded by Beatles music. It's just being passed down.

RR: What is your favorite Beatles Fest performance from years past?

JV: We have had a number of great bands perform at our Beatles Fest (and this year our lineup is undoubtedly the best lineup we've ever had), but one act in particular we've had perform every single year since the very first year and that is Joshua McCormack. Josh is a musical genius, and this is evident in his sets. It is fascinating to me to say that and at the same time also think of how much conversation inevitably surrounds his performances at Beatles Fest. Every year as I watch his performance, I am sure to pay close attention to how the crowd is responding to it. The younger crowd loves it, and most in attendance are fascinated by it. However, I don't think the same can be said for the people that are there to hear exact renditions of Beatles songs, as Josh's performances at Beatles Fest can be quite interpretive and theatrical.

The thing is, though, Mr. McCormack is our anchor or sorts for how we originally intended our Beatles Fest to be. We never imagined our fest as just a number of professional Beatles bands wearing wigs and stuff playing one after another for five hours. Rather, we have always asked local bands to put together a Beatles set and to perform it for the crowd.

On a side note, I am really hoping that Josh has his album "Funeral of the Siren" for sale underneath the merchandise tent at this year's fest and that everyone picks up a copy because I truly believe it is one of the best albums made by anyone in a very long time.     

RR: Do you have a favorite story about Beatles Fest?

JV: Two stories come to mind, one that pretty much sums up why we have Beatles Fest, and the other is just quite entertaining.

Shortly after last year's Beatles Fest, someone sent me a picture that was taken at the fest of a father holding his young son (who was holding a drumstick) as they watched one of the bands play. The picture was taken of them from behind, and the back of the father’s shirt read those famous Lennon lyrics, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope some day you will join us, and the world will be as one." That's what it's all about for me, right there in that picture. The intrinsic value for me with this fest is much more important than the extrinsic.

The other memory I have is straight out of “Seinfeld” or a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode. Toward the end of the fest last year as the last band was finishing their last song, I was standing on the steps of the stage getting ready to go up and thank everyone for coming and to wish them well, and all of a sudden this guy comes up to me and says, "You gotta play 'Rocky Raccoon!’" I just smiled and informed him that this was the last song of the night. Apparently he didn't like this and got right up in my face and began yelling, "Play (expletive) 'Rocky Raccoon!’ (Expletive) 'Rocky Raccoon!’”

Now again, mind you, I'm on the steps of the stage with this guy and the finale of the night is taking place right behind me, and we're in full view of the crowd at this point. I don't think anyone in the crowd had any idea that this was going on, and I don't think this guy knew who I was. Regardless, the thought briefly crossed my mind to just lay him out in front of everybody. Ha, ha, of course, instead I just motioned for someone from security to get the guy out of my face and show him the exit. It's here where I'd like to make a point that this absolutely is a family-friendly and all-ages festival. We want to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves, so we go to incredible lengths to make sure our festival environment is safe, so naturally I don't have much patience for things like that at the fest.   

RR: Song you most want to see performed?

JV: Very tough question. I get asked this every year, so you'd think I could figure it out by now, but the Beatles catalogue is just so expansive I don't even know where to begin. If I had to say right now, I would say "Hey Bulldog." I love all the energy in that song.

RR: Why these bands? Tell us about the bands and the selection process.

JV: For this year's fest, Paul and I were set on making this the best lineup we've ever had, and I believe that we've accomplished that. At this year's fest, you will see a lineup that consists of some of the best bands in the Chicagoland area: Red Light Remedy, Josh McCormack and Bunkertown. On top of that, for the first time since starting this fest six years ago, we are going to have an actual Beatles tribute band perform. They're called Stockwood, and they have such a great live set. They actually started performing when they were just kids and are now just teenagers.

The last performer we have lined up for this year's fest that we are really excited about is a remixer and DJ called Rhythm Scholar. This guy is known literally all over the world for his remixes of more famous artists’ songs. I can't give you many details about his set for Beatles Fest, but if what we have planned for it all goes through, it is going to be incredible.

When it came to the selection process this year, we also wanted to make this year's fest one of the most well-rounded lineups we've had. With Red Light Remedy and Stockwood, you're going to hear some awesome, pretty straightforward renditions of the Beatles catalogue, Bunkertown's set is going to add some rockabilly influence to the night, and Josh McCormack and Rhythm Scholar are going to provide a bit more of an interpretive side to The Beatles catalogue.

RR: Are there any rules given to the bands? Or are the bands given full creative license to do as they see fit?

JV: The bands are given full creative license to do as they see fit.

RR: Aside from the music, what can we expect at this year's Beatles Fest?

JV: Other than the stellar lineup of live music, we will have Beatles movies being projected on the sides of some of the downtown Hammond buildings, there will be food tents, a beer garden for those 21 and over, and a merchandise tent where you can pick up your official Beatles Fest swag along with any of the performing bands’ original material.

RR: How has the city responded to the event? Were they supportive of the idea in the beginning?

JV: Mayor (Thomas) McDermott and the city have been supportive from the very first year we started having the fest next to our cafe in downtown Hammond. They've always helped with providing the stage, the street blockers, the picnic tables, etc. I've had many conversations with Mayor McDermott about our fest, and we're both happy to see how many people this brings from all over to the downtown Hammond corridor.

However, I wish I could say the same for the Downtown Hammond Council. Some, not all, of the DHC board has pulled some very shameful moves recently regarding the cafe's Beatles Fest, and most may not know it, but I've spent the last few months fighting to protect this privately organized event from a board who instead of trying to steal a concept should be celebrating the fact that we brought and continue to hold this fest in downtown Hammond. However, before all this started to unravel between the cafe and the DHC, we did enter into a sponsorship agreement with them for this year's fest, so I should make mention of that. Thank you, DHC. (The rest of this paragraph has been edited for content.)

RR: Are you aware of a large audience coming from Chicago to participate?

JV: We definitely get a fair share of those that come down from Chicago to attend. It's fascinating to think about that, actually. People in this area tend to think that if you want something to do, then you go to Chicago. Wherein this festival is now drawing people from Chicago to downtown Hammond. It's awesome to see, really. And with the Stockwood performing at our fest this year, who are from Chicago, we anticipate a big increase in the Chicago traffic coming down. 

RR: Did you ever imagine this festival getting this big?

JV: Ha ha, I hadn't the slightest idea. There were about 75 people that attended our very first Beatles Fest six years ago. Now we find ourselves putting up a gate around the downtown Hammond fountain and green space just next to the lot where the fest is held in order to double the size of the festival grounds to accommodate the size of the crowd.

RR: How many years do you see doing this? What is the future of Beatles Fest?

JV: That is a great question. Only time will tell. I'm still having some trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that we're already in our sixth year with this fest. Time is just flying by.

At this point with the fest, I have the mindset of making it as big as possible while maintaining its integrity. This fest has plenty of room to grow. It wouldn't be surprising to me if next year we shut down Hohman Avenue in downtown Hammond and moved the stage onto the street.

RR: Has there been any attempt to contact Paul or Ringo (Starr) to perform?

JV: Ha ha, actually for the first time, yes. Given that Paul McCartney is going to be in Chicago two days right after our fest, I actually do have someone working on getting in touch with his team just to talk with them about our fest. I would consider it incredibly improbable to get him to stop by, but I'd be happy if they just sent out a tweet about it or something. Ha ha! 

Beatles Fest is coming on July 30 to downtown Hammond. Get your tickets now! For more information, visit

Photography by Aaron Brown. To see more of Aaron's work please check out his website: