JAIMIE VERNON – GROOVIN’ AND OTHER MIND ALTERING WORDS

vernon_19972As my post-pubescent lifestyle transitions into a post-nasal drip lifestyle I find myself sliding into third base on the eve of my 50th birthday (well, maybe not sliding…probably just trotting breathlessly). And as such I’ve realized that more than half the great rock and roll I’ve ever listened to is now suffering a tragic loss of its membership at a rate of about three superstars a week. That’s a boat load of rock stars paying the Ferryman  to ride down the river Styx. Before you know it Styxthe only viable old-timers left will be Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker and Little Richard. No offense to these three gents but that would signify a very sad state of affairs for music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kNwvIEQsg0


Call it nostalgia or call it morbid curiosity but I find myself suddenly open to seeing old acts that I would have never even considered seeing SteelyDanlive over the past 35 years. Many years back my lovely wife dragged me kicking and screaming to the Molten Anchored Theatre to see a revival of Steely Dan. She knew going in that I HATE Steely Dan (almost as much as Rush and The Tragically Hip). Butt ugly studio guys playing pretentious jazz twaddle isn’t my idea of a rockin’ good time.

CSNBut once the professionals hit the stage and laid waste to all the songs of my forgotten youth (i.e. anything they managed to squeeze onto A.M. radio) I was impressed and bored. Which was a step up from just being bored. Not long after I also managed to catch a round of Crosby, Stills & Nash at Casino Rama for free (my Mom’s a Platinum gambler there – her social security cheques are sent directly to the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Commission as a deposit). I was lured under the pretext that this was going to be a trainwreck. Far from it. I could have listened to David Crosby and Stephen Stills all night. Graham Nash was as effective as Neil Young (read: he blew chunks) but the three voices together were undeniably angelic.

Rascals1So, when a lovely invitation from Mirvish Media was presented so I could attend the opening night of The Rascals’ critically acclaimed Broadway musical “Once Upon A Dream” I looked at my wife and said “Payback’s a bitch!”. My exposure to the Rascals (and their early incarnation The Young Rascals) was limited to my research on Canadian band member Gene Cornish for my Encyclopedia and the audio reach made by their six or seven chart topping hits when I was a child. The band had more hits than that, but I was still in diapers when they peaked – therefore leaving my recollections in the hands of ‘Oldies’ Shindigand ‘Gold’ radio re-runs.

The evening came and the Royal Alex Theatre was a three ring circus. TV news cameras were everywhere getting reactions from the crowd full of media types – radio, TV and Canadian rock royalty included. It was the place to be seen. It was the scene, man.

The Rascals grew big and burned bright really quickly in the mid-1960s and by the early 1970s had crashed and burned when vocalist Eddie Brigati took his ball and bat home – leaving the remaining trio (Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, and Gene Cornish) to Rascals2flounder into obscurity on two unmemorable “let’s give it the ole college try” LPs. As this musical clearly points out in its epilogue, the band let 40 years slip by without much in the way of post-Rascals news except when one member was suing the ass of another member or, sadly, himself [known in entertainment circles as the McCartney vs. McCartney Defensive].

VanZandtFollowing E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt inducting The Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, the megafan was obsessed with seeing the original group reunite. After agreeing to perform for the first time in decades at a charity gig sponsored by Van Zandt and his wife, the group realized they still had the music magic. Van Zandt then proposed something a little different, a little outrageous outside of the typical soft-seater and arena death-on-two-legs tours now all the rage with classic rock acts: it would be a biographical musical featuring the band as their own musical accompanists.

Rascals_liveOnce Upon A Dream” is a trip in the way, way back machine where the four band members tell their own story in a series of talking head confessional video spots, re-enactments of key events in their career, and archival footage all projected to the stellar live performance of the original Rascals – which also includes the help of five backing musicians. The overall effect is a mixed blessing.

Rascals_live2With the exception of opening night jitters that showed up a weak vocal performance by Brigati most of the night (“How Can I Be Sure” notwithstanding), the musical recreation showcased every fan favourite and each of the Rascals’ unwavering musical skills; Dino Danelli was mesmerizing as one of the most stylish and original rock drummers of the past or the present (only Lighthouse’s Skip Prokop might be able to match Danelli’s dexterity in the 65-or-older category); Cornish’s guitar playing was tasty and subtle – with solos better than those he laid down on vinyl…hell, after 40 years he’d better have better solos! And the one-two punch of smooth Hammond organ and blue-eyed soul vocal team-up from Cavaliere remains the Rascals’ strongest asset – now and then; Brigati, meanwhile, waved around two tambourines, chirped, and danced like a Woodstock-era leprechaun on brown acid.

Mustang SallyWhere the overly lengthy two-hour biographical concert falls short is in the Rascals story itself. It might be interesting to the band members but it’s a ho-hum atypical rock story experienced by nearly every act of that era. I believe they knew this going in – or why spend the first 45 minutes of the show talking about their pre-fame days and showcasing a whole lot of other peoples cover tunes? And there’s no bones about it – the Rascals were a great cover band – right up until they were discovered playing as houseband in a bar in the Hamptons in 1965.

Rascals_live4Still, aside from Brigati’s near fatal shooting by his own brother (himself growing up to be a key member of “Peppermint Twist” hitmakers Joey Dee & The Starlighters) and a car accident that left him in a coma for an extended period of time, the excitement level lacked on the stage. Suddenly, the ramp up to their fame was hastily glossed over in one short statement about famed Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun liking them and signing them to his label. They also mentioned, in a matter-of-fact fashion, that Phil Spector wanted to produce them and was so pissed off when they turned him down he proceeded to kick a tree and break his foot. A funny anecdote that. One that could have been funnier had they re-enacted it in the accompanying multi-media presentation – instead, we get Brigati’s girlfriend (played by an actress) wanting to introduce him to a great player who would be perfect for the Rascals earlier in their formation. A moot quibble from me but one that’s notable in tightening up some rather lagging bits between songs. Here’s the first 9 minutes of the show:

Fortunately, we do get to see how the Rascals’ early albums were recorded in the studio – with some great actors portraying the young Rascals3version of the band. This element to the musical finally helps the narrative along and the show really gets rolling from there on in. And the hits start flowing like bong-water. Yes, it’s no coincidence that The Rascals soon outgrow their cover tune back catalogue – including their first true hit “Good Lovin’” in 1966  – in favour of Brigati & Cavaliere’s peace and granola blue-eyed psychedelia.

By the Summer of Love everyone was smoking the Kool-Aid and The Rascals drifted from their unique position as one of the only post-Theater-The RascalsBritish Invasion American R & B survivors to just one of the In-Crowd. They were deep into battling for sexual and racial equality and putting an end to The Vietnam War. Just like everyone else. They could have been The Electric Flag or Strawberry Alarm Clock for all anyone knew. But the songs. Oh, man….the SONGS kept them firmly above the fad: “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long”, the first show stopper  “Groovin’”.

A Girl Like You” (their only #1 in Canada) 

the stunning showcase for Brigati in “How Can I Be Sure” 

“It’s Wonderful”, the response song to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “What A Day For A Daydream” with “A Beautiful Morning

…and, of course, the second show stopper “People Got To Be Free”.

It would have all been well worth the exercise had the show ended there. But the band decided to give fans 110% instead of a mere 99. A Rascals_live3little long, a little anti-climactic but no one can say this show doesn’t give the fans of the 1960s, and specifically, the Rascals their money’s worth.  The extravaganza has finished its run in Toronto, but when it returns (and I’m sure it will), I think anyone who grew up in the era of liberation should check it out. The Rascals are still the feel-good band of the last half-century!
Live photos courtesy of Mirvish Media.

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 17 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com or http://www.bullseyecanada.com

One Response to “JAIMIE VERNON – GROOVIN’ AND OTHER MIND ALTERING WORDS”

  1. Jim Chisholm in Campbell River Says:

    Thanks for this Jaimie. The (Young) Rascal were definitely part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. They were inspiration for my own fumblings in 60s garage bands. It’s too bad they didn’t find a way to extend their career in a meaningful way. Still, their tunes are always welcome to my ear. Right now I’ve got my Ultimate Rascals CD on and somewhere I have a Gene Cornish songbook that I can raid for a momentary thrill.

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