Monday, September 19, 2016

Concert Review: Tommy James and Felix Cavaliere at BergenPAC, Englewood NJ

A half century ago, when The Rascals (led by Felix Cavaliere) and Tommy James and the Shondells were in their early 20s and starting several years of remarkable success on the pop charts, I was still only in the first grade. But their music was everywhere, and I imbibed it as readily as milk in that time.

This past Friday, the two men and their groups played at the Bergen Performing Arts Center (BergenPAC), only a few blocks from where I live in my hometown, Englewood, NJ. They had played this venue previously but I had ignored their presence on those occasions.

Maybe it was because I was off from work for the day and would not have to rush from my job in New York to eat and make the show. Or maybe it was because someone I know phoned to say he had heard they would be playing there while he was listening to a radio station—in western Pennsylvania. Or maybe it was because this past year, with the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, and Keith Emerson, I’ve grown more conscious of rock ‘n’ rollers’ mortality. 

In any case, I decided to see the show, keeping my fingers crossed that I would not suffer the same acute disappointment I felt a year ago when I saw another idol of my youth, Todd Rundgren, at BergenPAC.

I need not have worried. Cavaliere and James are veteran performers who know what their audiences have come out to see, and give it to them. While they don’t deliver different set lists from one date to another, as Bruce Springsteen does, neither is content to reprise their hits note-for-note. Their voices remain in remarkable shape for a pair of vocalists hovering around 70, and I would bet that their skill with their chosen instruments (Cavaliere, Hammond organ; James, guitar) has only grown with age.

The two musicians presented something of a contrast. Felix Cavaliere, shorter, played with a video montage behind him, with even song titles put up (a bit unnecessarily, as even audience members unfamiliar with them from long ago could figure them out from the chorus). The images lingered on him more often than his original bandmates. (The billing at this concert, “Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals,” reflects the fact that, aside from their brief, wonderful run on Broadway a few years ago, “Once Upon a Dream,” Cavaliere has played apart from Eddie Brigati, Gene Cornish and Dino Danelli since the early 1970s.)

Tommy James dispensed with video accompaniment, dominating the stage instead with his bulk. (His dark looks and outfit, along with his size, may have led some to liken him to Johnny Cash, as he did a quick parody of The Man in Black’s “I Walk the Line.”) In general, James was somewhat more jocular than Cavaliere, including a line that drew appreciative chuckles from the largely older audience: “In the Sixties we took acid. Now, we take antacid.”

Both Cavaliere and James, however, frequently but economically related stories of their early hits. Cavaliere noted that the Rascals’ fast songs resulted from a bar owner urging more of these because they got people up to dance, which made them thirsty and more likely to order drinks. Introducing “Groovin’ (on a Sunday Afternoon”), he recalled how band members in relationships met with skepticism from their significant others about working on Friday and Sunday nights, and that this song was, in effect, his response.

James provided a considerably more hair-raising prelude to one of his hits, a slower, acoustic version of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” This radically revised version would play at the close of the planned adaptation of his memoir, Me, The Mob and The Music, he said.

The book and film recount his early association with Morris Levy, head of Roulette Records. The indie label, a front for the Genovese crime family, also made him a star. The relationship between the company exec and his star was “sort of like an abusive father who sends his son to college,” James said.

James was the closing act Friday night, though it could easily have been Cavaliere. I had not really come to hear James, not having regarded him as a particularly innovative artist.

But, though I still don’t regard James as worthy of induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, my opinion of him has considerably risen as a result of seeing him at BergenPAC. He plays unpretentious, high-energy rock ‘n’ roll, knows how to work a crowd, and has created a body of songs that define an indelible moment in the pop zeitgeist: “Draggin’ the Line” (his opener), “Crimson and Clover,” “Hanky Panky,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” and my favorite, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” (In the concert, he played two versions of the latter, but the acoustic one will certainly have longtime fans reevaluating their understanding of the song. It was hard for me to choose between the two.)

As longtime readers of this blog know from past posts on “People Got To Be Free,” the 70th birthday of guitarist Gene Cornish, and the Broadway opening of “Once Upon a Dream,” my admiration for The Rascals is virtually unbounded. Cavaliere vindicated that faith, and more, on Friday night. He allowed the audience to experience the major hits of his (and their) youth—“Lonely Too Long,” “Mustang Sally,” “A Beautiful Morning,” and “Good Lovin’”—in a new way, seamlessly sampling swatches of other songs from that era of R&B such as “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” and “"Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)".

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