Sunday, November 17, 2013

Forgotten Hits Reviews The Rascals and "Once Upon A Dream"

After nearly a year of begging The Rascals to take their hot new "Once Upon A Dream" show on the road (and, more specifically, to bring it to Chicago), the big event FINALLY happened last week ... and we were fortunate enough to be there for the final performance at last Sunday's matinee.


Let me start out by saying that I absolutely LOVE these guys ... I dug all the hits back in the day and STILL listen to their music all of the time.  The fact that all four original Rascals were able to set aside 40 years of differences and come together for this special presentation is really saying something ... and quite honestly, had this just been one or two of the guys, it wouldn't have been the same or had the impact the full band reunion has had.  (We saw Felix Cavaliere [performing as Felix Cavaliere's Rascals] a few years ago when Felix was supported by a very young back-up band who clearly had very little appreciation for his music and what it meant to his fans.  They basically went through the motions of providing back-up musicianship for Felix's vocals but were in no way "connected" to this music and what it meant.  As such, the result was a very disappointing show.  I've commented before that the ONLY time the band came alive was when they performed Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", which was executed PERFECTLY live on stage ... it was, in fact, the highlight of the night ... which simply shouldn't be the case at a RASCALS concert!!!)  

During this same era, Dino Danelli and Gene Cornish were performing as The New Rascals (another in a long line of ill-fated concepts since neither one of these guys sang any of the band's hit songs ... so they had to hire a Felix sound-alike in order to recreate their hits on stage.)  Truth be told, I passed up any opportunity to see them ... what would be the point?  Simply put, I just wasn't interested. 

But to know that all FOUR ORIGINAL RASCALS were reuniting for this show was really going to be something ... no, let me clarify that ... it was going to mean EVERYTHING ... because something along these lines was not going to happen again in this lifetime.  

There's been an awful lot of hype about this special reunion show ... and I can absolutely testify that EVERY review ... bar none ... has been glowing ... nothing but the kindest remarks and highest accolades for both the show and the reunited band ... I can honestly say that after a year of performances, I have yet to read one single negative review ... and certainly didn't want to come out here today announcing "So let me be the first"!!!  

And, quite honestly, mine really isn't a negative review ... unless you choose to read and interpret it that way.  I can't think of a single thing the band has done wrong ... and I believe they went into this with the very best of intentions and are giving it their collective "all" for each and every performance.  I'm just not convinced that this is the show The Rascals would have put together on their own ... in fact, I doubt that the reunion would have happened at all were it not for the efforts and input of Steven and Maureen VanZandt. 

The simple truth is that this time around The Rascals report to a higher power ... this entire presentation has been pre-calculated, arranged and precisely timed down to the most minute detail ... and, as such, I will tell you that this has been a very difficult review to write as I was SO looking forward to this show ... but I also feel I have a fiduciary responsibility to our readers to present a fair and accurate review of the program.  (Let's face it ... this really wasn't much of a "road trip" ... the show is already heading back to Broadway, meaning fans in most parts of the country will have to wait quite a while to get to see it, assuming it ever goes back out again and hits their area at all!)  

I just feel that after a year of performances now may be time to step back a bit and reanalyze the results.  Perhaps a little bit of "retooling" is in order.  Don't get me wrong ... it's quite evident that the fans are going away happy ... they're seeing all four of the original guys playing all of their biggest hits in front of a huge, multi-media backdrop providing many of the visuals of this era for our universal consumption.  It just doesn't feel "real".  In fact, it feels SO calculated at times that I felt it stripped any spontaneity or genuine emotion from the performance ... and that's a REAL shame because these guys are a REAL band and they performed their music brilliantly.

The show is billed as "The Songs You Know ... And The Story You Don't Know" ... but, quite honestly, I felt that there was very little story here.   

Maybe that's partly my fault ... perhaps I had built up a preconceived notion of what the show would be and what it would cover and then felt a little disappointed and cheated when it fell short of hitting all of the "highs" I was anticipating.  Maybe because of the way the concept was sold, I mentally placed the bar too high and doomed myself to some level of disappointment. 

It's a fine line you walk, I guess, putting together a show like this ... how much is enough?  How much is too much?  It's interesting to note that the Chicago Tribune review took the position that fans probably would have been content to turn off the big screen video presentation and just let the band perform while I, on the other hand, felt the opposite.  SO much hype has gone into the "multi-media event" nature of this show that I guess I was expecting more in the way of story-telling and special effects. 

I was looking forward to the concept of having The Rascals provide the soundtrack to their incredible career over the backdrop of the guys themselves advancing the story every step of the way through fly-on-the-wall memories, vintage video clips, recent interviews, and "dramatic re-enactments" of key events by a bunch of young actors who, I've got to say, bore an UNCANNY resemblance to the original Rascals at that point in their career.  (There were a couple of scenes where I had to look twice to see if that was a recreation of events or actual real footage of the band themselves ... the VanZandt's did a REMARKABLE job of recruiting the actors portraying The "Younger" Rascals for this event.)  

Instead of moving things forward at an entertaining pace, most of these little interludes felt very scripted and not the least bit "natural" ... I think it would have been FAR more entertaining to have done REAL interviews with all four guys and then from those clips edit together something of a more heart-felt nature.  Instead, you could almost feel them reading their lines instead of speaking their actual thoughts from their hearts.  

If presented in their natural state, I believe the guys would have shown more of their Jersey attitude ... in fact, the show got off to a great start when, just prior to the music starting, the voice-over narration announced:  "For those of you with cell phones, leave 'em on ... take as many pictures as you like ... post 'em ... tweet 'em ... in fact, tonight, do whatever the fuck you like!"  That attitude was reciprocated at the end of the show when, as a collective group, The Rascals looked back at the 40 years between their last and most recent performances and reflected on how the world had changed during that time only to report "not a fuckin' thing has changed."  Had that attitude continued through the duration of the show (instead of simply as "bookends") I think we might have gotten a better feel of just what these guys were like back in the day.  Instead, we got scripted, well-rehearsed reflections of what somebody ELSE thought they should say ... and I felt a little bit cheated by that.  

Don't get me wrong ... there were still some very interesting stories told ... I didn't know about Eddie Brigati being shot as a kid ... and then ending up in a coma after a near-fatal car accident ... or the fact that he ultimately replaced his brother (the very guy who shot him!) in Joey Dee's Starliters.  And it was cool to hear about the time The Beatles opened for Joey Dee and the Starliters back in the pre - Fab Four / Beatlemania days ... and how just two years later mega-promoter Sid Bernstein gave The Rascals ring-side seats in the dug-out to watch The Beatles perform their infamous concert at Shea Stadium (while a huge "The Rascals Are Coming" banner flashed on the scoreboard!)  Simply put, I would have loved to have heard MORE of these types of stories ... more details about how they turned down Phil Spector's offer to produce them (because they preferred to produce themselves, which Atlantic Records gave them the opportunity to do!) and more of how they developed as a band.  (How they recruited Danelli was a great story all by itself!)  

More about the early days ... their early influences ... how they helped to create and develop the whole "blue-eyed soul" sound of the '60's ... the crazy days of touring and television appearances ... how they developed their knack for songwriting (and what some of these songs meant or were inspired by) ... the whirlwind pace of rock and roll life in the '60's which, apparently, over time ultimately ate up each and every one of them with the usual drugs and excesses that were the '60's 

The narrative interludes were also spaced quite a bit apart throughout the show, which I felt compromised the continuity of the story-telling ... MOST of the time it was just psychedelic colors splashed on the screen ... yes, visually beautiful to watch ... but really adding nothing to the overall presentation of what we came to see and hear ... which was, of course, the music.

To that degree, the song line-up did not disappoint.  EVERY key hit was performed in its entirety.  (It was SO good to hear Forgotten Hits like "Come On Up" and "You Better Run" played again ... these were cruisin' staples back in the day ... and radio has ignored this material for YEARS now.  And these tracks sounded perfect when they were performed side-by-side with all of their biggest and best-known hits.)  However, even trying to kick back and watch and enjoy the band also felt a little bit like a double-edged sword ... I found the big screen to be a bit of a distraction at times, watching and waiting to see what might appear next rather than really focusing my attention on the band at hand ... and (with that being said) I almost felt at times like it was a competition between the hey-day Rascals and the present-day Rascals with the only losers being the confused audience on where best to focus their attention so as not to miss anything.  

As for the material, you're going to split the jury every time with a show like this ... once again it all comes back to how much is too much and how much is not enough?  This was never more evident than two back-to-back emails I received after the opening nights of the show.  

The first one said: "You probably knew them all ... but there were quite a few songs I didn't recognize ... especially that last one there at the end" ... while the very next email read "Wasn't it great hearing songs like 'Find Somebody' and 'See' (which was their closing "mystery" track, by the way!) ... they never sounded better than they did there live!"  Like Rick Nelson sang, "You can't please every one so you've got to please yourself."  (My understanding is that Little Steven had more than a little bit to do with the set list / song selection as well.)

So how did they sound?  Well, I can only state that as far as the performances themselves went, it was sometimes painfully evident that these are not the YOUNG Rascals anymore ... a lot of years have passed ... and not all of them were kind.  I suppose it's also safe to say that NONE of these guys have aged particularly well.  No, The YOUNG Rascals they ain't ... they are now the significantly OLDER Rascals and some of that music is a bit hard to recreate at this stage of the game.  However despite any occasional faltering, I will proudly and boldly proclaim that they gave it their collective all every step of the way ... and seeing The Rascals was, without question, a once in a lifetime opportunity that I wouldn't have passed up for the world.  

Much has been made about the state of Eddie Brigati's health prior to Steven and Maureen VanZandt putting this show together ... extensive rehab, working out at the health club, vocal lessons, etc, etc, etc ...   

Throughout the evening Eddie's vocals ran two extremes ... he was either spot-on or a mile off ...  but when he was on, it was magical ... it was nothing short of heavenly when he would hit his stride on certain phrases.  And it sure was fun to watch him prancing around on stage again ... he really seemed to be having the time of his life up there ... and seemed genuinely humbled by the incredible reaction of the crowd. 

Felix's vocals were much stronger ... he has managed to stay active in the business by still performing and recording with some regularity ... but in all fairness, there were times when he did a fair amount of "stretching" to hit some of his notes as well.  (Part of this very well could be ... and I'm only speculating here ... the fact that we went to a Sunday Matinee performance, right after the band had performed to a packed house the previous night ... they're simply not used to that type of a grueling schedule at this stage of the game and probably needed more "recovery" time.  The OTHER part could most likely be the fact that these guys are in their 70's for Chrissakes, trying to recreate a much younger man's music!)  And honestly the vocal mix left a little bit to be desired from our vantage point ... some of it was quite muffled in the balcony and hard to ascertain ... but the trio of soulful background singers REALLY had a huge impact on the overall sound, as did the two accessory musicians who filled in all of the musical gaps, recreating the sounds of strings, flutes, horns and harps throughout the performance.  (One reader suggested that maybe I didn't enjoy the show as much as he did because of the vantage point of our seats ... to which I can only respond, "If you're going to charge up to $275 per ticket for this show there better be perfect sound in EVERY seat in the theater, damn it!!!")  

Dino Danelli, once one of the most flamboyant drummers on the music scene (and always a pleasure to watch) seemed to have fallen a step or two behind the beat at various times during the concert ... WAY too many frills which, quite honestly, were not only unnecessary, but were also throwing the rest of the band off ... there were more than a few times where I felt like the guys had to regroup mid song to re-establish the proper tempo.  (Quality and substance over flash and flair, guys!  These songs stand on their own WITHOUT all the frills.  Dino ... your drumming is legendary and stands apart from all the others of that era ... rest on your laurels and throw us one or two showy surprises and leave it at that!)  In fact, out of all the guys, speaking strictly for overall musicianship, I'd have to give it to Gene Cornish hands down as the most consistent player of the night ... he still hit all his licks and contributed background vocals where necessary to keep the show on track.  

Hits like "I've Been Lonely Too Long", "It's Wonderful" (a sensational show opener!), the previously mentioned "Come On Up" and "You Better Run", "Carry Me Back" (another personal favorite), "Groovin'" and "A Beautiful Morning" kept things moving along at a brisk, hit-filled pace.   However, there was no denying where the real weakness lie that night.  

"How Can I Be Sure" ... which was set up to play out as the show-stopping highlight of the night ... and absolutely should have been ... fell flat due to Eddie's weak vocals ... but man, he was sure trying ... one couldn't help but get a little choked up knowing what this man could once do ... and seeing where those shortcomings are today.  Despite his faltering vocal, it was still an emotional highlight of the show.  

Other favorites:  "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore", which WAS a show-stopper.  I loved the re-enactment of the band in the studio first being presented the song ... "Well, you see, you actually have to SPEAK the verses of this song ... you only sing on the chorus" ... and yet as irrational and unconventional as that may have seemed at the time, what a powerful effect this proved to be!  The best sounding song of the night (for me) was "Heaven", a minor hit from 1969 that reached #14 in Record World but crapped out at #39 in Billboard. (Huh?!?!?) 

"Good Lovin'", their first #1 Hit, was visually exciting, as was their biggest chart-topper "People Got To Be Free".  And seriously, they didn't miss a hit in between ... scroll back to find their set list reproduced here on the site a couple of times since these shows first kicked off last year in New York.  Felix also did a fine job on my personal all-time favorite Rascals tune, "A Girl Like You", although that was another one where hitting some of the notes seemed to be a bit of a challenge for him. 
(Follow the bouncing ball ... there was no excuse for NOT 
singing along when the band performed their first #1 Hit Good Lovin'"!!!)

The show was heavy on covers, particularly Motown tracks like "Mickey's Monkey" and "Too Many Fish In The Sea", which was kind of surprising in that back in the day they seemed to favor more of the Memphis / Muscle Shoals sounds of Wilson Pickett and Booker T. and the MG's.  In fact, their two best-known covers (thanks to the INCREDIBLY successful "Time Peace: The Rascals' Greatest Hits" album) were not performed that night ... I certainly would have expected to hear "In The Midnight Hour" or "Mustang Sally" ahead of a Marvelettes tune!  (Again, perhaps a bit of retooling is in order???  THOSE are the covers the fans want to hear.)  

The narration played up the fact that The Rascals COULD have been the best "cover band" in the world ... but chose not to be ... instead, they started writing their own hits ... and were damn good at it!!!  Imagine what it must have felt like to go from covering Wilson Pickett in '65 to having an artist like Booker T. and the MG's cover YOUR song a couple of years later, which they did when their instrumental version of "Groovin'" followed The Rascals' hit up the charts!  Literally overnight, they went from covering other artists and material that inspired them ... to inspiring artists to cover THEIR material instead ... and yes, it was that good!  (The other day we featured a new rendition of "How Can I Be Sure" by Claire Martin, a song that is now considered to be a standard ... and this besides the fact that David Cassidy also recorded it!!!  lol)

Their triumphant return to New York is right around the corner ... and nightly sell-outs are expected.  (We've already heard from at least a dozen readers who are going to see the show, many for the second or even third time.)
In all fairness, I guess we all viewed the show a little bit differently last Sunday, even if we were sitting side by side ... whereas I felt it was a great show and was glad I got the chance to see it, I still came away disappointed because I couldn't get past the fact of what I felt the show could have been ... or SHOULD have been.  Meanwhile, Frannie absolutely LOVED it ... and leaned over halfway through the show and asked me "Don't you wish we could see it again tomorrow?"  So clearly it worked on different levels for different people.  

I've also made no secret along the way that I thought the ticket prices were OUTRAGEOUS for this series and, as a result, they had a difficult time putting butts in seats until they started offering "special code" / discount seating.  Die-hard fans who would have LOVED to see their '60's heroes had to take a pass on what most likely will prove to be a final, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Yet, from what I could see, the crowd that was there was completely enthralled ... and it was GREAT to see the four guys playing music together again, making nice for the fans (although after the final bow Felix disappeared from the stage well ahead of the rest of the guys who hung around for a bit ... I wonder what THAT was about?!?!?)  Maybe he went to check and see if his direct deposit had been made ... because besides all of the great musical memories, this show also seems to be about the money. 

The Rascals said they would love to come back to Chicago and do more shows ... but in order for that to happen successfully, Broadway In Chicago needs to rethink the ticket pricing structure.  As it is, they sold a good percentage of seats at half-price (or less) near the end just to fill some seats.  Maybe a more affordable ticket ... and a more extended stay (eliminating the need for 12-hours-later matinees and thus creating more "recovery" time for the band) is the key to making this happen.  (See, there's that "retooling" thing again!!!)  
Kent Kotal
Forgotten Hits    

OVERALL REVIEW:  On a scale of 1 - 10 ... I give it a 6

Was it everything I had hoped it would be?  

In a word ...
Wow!  Talk about your Forgotten Hits!!!  After The Rascals split up, Drummer Dino Danelli and Guitarist Gene Cornish formed Bulldog ... who had one Top 50 Hit in 1972 and then disappeared.  The two would reunite in the late '70's as Fotomaker (along with Wally Bryson who, by then, had left The Raspberries.(  More recently Danelli and Cornish have been performing as "The New Rascals" ... until this reunion opportunity presented itself!!!

Do I recommend "Once Upon A Dream" to others?
Absolutely.  You'll have a good time.  The music and effects are spectacular and entertaining.  If you're a fan of The Rascals' music, you'll be very pleased by the way its being presented.  (And who knows ... now that you've seen an HONEST review of the show, you won't go into it with any of the misconceived expectations that I did ... and, as a result, you'll have an even better time!)  

By the way ... ALL of the photos featured today are courtesy of Frannie Kotal (aka Mrs. K) ... not bad for balcony seats and a camera phone, eh???  Thanks, Honey!!!  (kk)