Friday, November 15, 2013

Once Upon a Dream - The Rascals in Detroit, November 14, 2013

How many of the first tier rock bands from the '60's are still rocking around? With all members alive, and able to perform? And of those, how many actually are performing? And of those, how many are bringing it, in major halls with first rate production?

I'm pretty sure there's only one: The Rascals.
Felix Cavaliere Gene Cornish and Eddie Brigati
That's not the only reason to see their show, Once Upon a Dream, but it's a good place to start. The Rascals weren't simply any band, though; they were a substantial portion of my childhood soundtrack. Their hits played on the AM radio on my way to day camp, and can still be heard regularly on various radio outlets including XM/Sirius Radio's Underground Garage. Their biggest hit, Good Lovin', remains one of the most instantly identifiable -- and urgently danceable -- songs of the rock era. And, of course, they were from New Jersey. Not down the shore, where I never went, but in Garfield, a town I passed regularly on the Garden State Parkway on the way to my grandparents' house. Just before the toll plaza. Got lost there once.

Once Upon a Dream had a 3 week run on Broadway earlier this year, and is presented as a full concert performance interweaved with an autobiographical video presentation of the band. The videos -- snippets of band members' recollections as dramatizations of scenes from their heyday -- helped provide a small glimpse in to who these 4 men were. But we were there for the music.

The show started with a warning, in the recorded voice of Little Steven: If we had cellphones... leave them on! Take pictures! Tweet them! Post them to facebook! "Do whatever the fuck you want." If that didn't instantly convey my home-state attitude, the text of the introductory video -- with the Star Wars text scroll in full effect -- left no doubt: Finale: Once Upon a Dream played in the background: Once upon a dream, time stood still. Vincent Pastore narrated: "Once upon a dream there was a band of brothers who came from a galaxy, far, far away called... New Jersey!"

Dino Danelli
The curtain lifted to Dino Danelli launching the band in to an opening salvo of It's Wonderful , I've Been Lonely Too Long and What Is The Reason . Two things were immediately apparent: 1) This band can still play. 2) Marc Brickman's video creations, on top of a first rate audio system, would make for a very enjoyable evening.

Sure, these Rascals are no longer young. Eddie Brigati has lost the upper end of his range. Felix Cavaliere went flat... more than once. And maybe Gene Cornish missed a few notes. It really didn't matter. Oh, and did I mention Dino Danelli? What a treat! He drove the band, made it move, made it groove. And when Eddie sang the beautiful waltz How Can I Be Sure, it was no dream; time stood still.

The Rascals' songs are relentless in their nearly unbounded optimism. Whereas John Lennon sang a song about the morning starting off with a piercing cry from a rooster, followed by Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in, The Rascals' morning song began with gentle wind chimes and bells, followed by I think I'll go outside a while and just smile. Even their "protest" song, People Got To Be Free , is presented as hope: What a lovely lovely world this would be If everyone would learn to live together.

There are other things I love about The Rascals' songs: The call and response, or sometimes the response and call. The harmonies. And their use of horns -- unfortunately synthesized on this tour. After the opening salvo, the show progressed more or less in chronological order. Eventually they played all of the big hits, most of the not-so-big hits, and a few that weren't hits at all.

The only false note of the presentation was a final video featuring the actors playing the "young" Rascals, explaining how "it all went dark" when The Rascals broke up. Overly whiny and mostly irrelevant, it came off to me more like Little Steven trying to write like David Chase... and not doing a very good job of it. But even that negative vibe was soon replaced by one last sunny song, A Ray Of Hope .

Last night's show was the 33rd Fall Fundraiser for JARC. JARC is a wonderful local charity, with whom I have previously worked (and will do so again) via my children's middle school. I was thrilled to see that they'd somehow gotten a separate Rascals show a day ahead of the "to the public" performance, but I was decidedly an exception in that regard. The audience was much smaller than it could have been, and they were there for the charity rather than for The Rascals.

If this show comes to your town, go see it. See it while you can.