Saturday, June 23, 2018

Concert Review: Happy Together Tour, BergenPAC, Englewood, NJ

For several years, the “Happy Together Tour” of Sixties and Seventies performing artists has stopped in my hometown, Englewood, NJ. I had been mildly curious about seeing the half-dozen acts that I had grown up with listening to. But only because of a mix of circumstances—dominated by malaise—did I finally decide to see them on Tuesday night at BergenPAC.

By the time the concert was over three hours later, it had fulfilled my original hope. This unabashed nostalgic trip lifted my spirits.

The title—taken from the biggest career hit of the headliners and prime movers of this long-running tour, The Turtles—hints at the format’s advantages and limitations: Take half a dozen groups or solo acts (with a backup band to supplement the whole crew) who will do five or six of their biggest hits without extended musical solos or other embellishments, then make way for the next act. Don’t expect many surprises, except (if you count this as a surprise) some jokes about the Sixties or aging.

(A sample: Jim Yester of The Association, introducing “Along Comes Mary,” scoffed at the controversy arising from its alleged drug references at the time: “But have you heard what’s on the radio lately?” Bandmate Jules Alexander responded: “Jim, I can remember when ‘Ho’ referred to Don’s last name!”)

“Rock ‘n’ roll keeps you young!” one of the performers, Mark Lindsay, yelled as he finished his set. While performing in front of appreciative crowds like this one certainly provides an adrenaline rush, aging and even mortality are inevitable. The signs of them were definitely apparent for longtime fans of these rock ‘n’ rollers. 

Health challenges, for instance, had sidelined one of the two mainstays of The Turtles, Howard Kaylan, with his place on the tour taken by contemporary Ron Dante. Even Kaylan’s partner, the normally ebullient Mark Volman, apologized for forgetting the names of backup musicians, explaining that he had undergone treatment for cancer in the last couple of years. 

The bigger ensembles were similarly afflicted, with The Cowsills and The Association now effectively trios—about half the size at their commercial peak.

For the most part, these performers were not particularly innovative or masterful on their instruments even in their primes, as two other artists from the Sixties who have appeared at BergenPAC, organist Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals and guitarist Robbie Krieger of The Doors, were and are. But if you are seeking soaring harmonies and songs that stick in your memory—ones that, with good reason, have been staples of oldies radio stations—then Englewood was the place to be earlier this week.

Here’s a rundown of the acts, from last to first billing:

*The Cowsills: Beforehand, this was the band I knew least about, and afterward represented the most pleasant surprise. This group, which inspired The Partridge Family, played “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” (which, with its much better-known refrain—“I love the flower girl”—could hardly embody better its release date during the Summer of Love), “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake,”  and two title theme songs—one, from the musical “Hair,” the other which I was unaware of, despite listening to the show religiously on Friday nights as a kid), “Love, American Style.” Bob, Paul and Susan (the youngest of the siblings—my age), having endured the normal vicissitudes of show business along with family tragedies (an abusive father, the loss of their mother, and the deaths of brothers Bill, Barry and John), remain heartingly upbeat and able to manage their complex vocals.

*Mark Lindsay: The former lead singer of Paul Revere and the Raiders was not my favorite among the acts. Indeed, had it only him on the bill, I would not gone to the show. But he was certainly the most striking of all the performers, with his lanky frame, his onstage wardrobe changes (from gleaming silvery jacket to the Revolutionary War jacket that served as his trademark with the Raiders), and his still-strong voice that belted out hits like "Indian Reservation," "Kicks," "Hungry," and "Arizona."

*The Association: I had been most curious about how this group sounded. Their major hits—“Windy,” “Never My Love,” and “Cherish”—were practically the first songs I can distinctly recall coming over the radio when I was a youngster. A sextet at the height of their fame, with a stupefying amount of lineup changes over the past five decades, they were down to a trio now. Amazingly, though, their characteristic vocal harmonies sounded as intricate as ever, and they finished the first half of the show with a rousing version of their first hit, “Along Comes Mary.”

*Gary Puckett: The front man of The Union Gap epitomized much of the summer firefly quality of these performers, with five Top 10 singles including their 1967 debut, “Woman Woman,” as well as “Young Girl,” “Lady Willpower” and “No Getting Over You.” The least jocular, most earnest performer on the bill, he was also the one with the least amount of non-singing thrills, and with his baritone still in fine form.

*Chuck Negron: Formerly one of the three lead vocalists of Three Dog Night, he exhibited none of the substance-abuse and intra-group tensions that led to that mega-selling band’s breakup in the mid-Seventies. He did acknowledge, in introducing “Joy to the World,” that his colleagues back then didn’t really see the point in a song featuring a frog and a fish, but he also named and thanked them for being part of his early success. Through his short set, he wove gratefulness for being alive to see eight children with some pointed humor (“I grew up not far from here, in the Bronx; I still carry a knife”), bringing the audience to its feet with hits such as “Celebrate,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “One” and “Eli’s Coming.”'

*The Turtles: I had been most concerned before the show about Kaylan and Volman. I knew, from hearing them as guests on rock ‘n’ roll radio shows as “Flo and Eddie,” that the comic schtick factor with them could be quite high. But their live performances of recent years, captured on YouTube, had, I thought, gone quite over the top. I was afraid that it would get out of hand again. But I needn’t have worried. Though Volman did his characteristic cowbell-whacking on one of my favorite songs of the Sixties, “She’d Rather Be With Me,” it was—perhaps because of his admitted health issues—a bit more restrained than before. Better yet, Dante proved a more-than-capable replacement for Kaylan. Not just a singer (lead vocals for The Archies, the fictional “band” featured on the “Archie” cartoon show of the late Sixties that I watched as a youngster), he is also a multi-dimensional force as a guitarist and producer of other artists (Pat Benatar, Cher and Barry Manilow), making him a peppy, highly compatible “sunshine pop” onstage partner for Volman. He not only played “Sugar, Sugar,” his indelible bubblegum hit with The Archies (the first single I ever bought, at the tender age of nine), but expertly complemented Volman on such Turtles tunes as Elenore,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “You Showed Me” and the inevitable “Happy Together.”

No account of this concert and tour would be complete without a tip of the bat to the unbilled, unsung backup band. Even though the headliners share common roots in the feel-good Southern California pop of the mid-Sixties, and they have appeared often together (including this frankly nostalgic tour) over the years, every performer is individual and needs to be accommodated by backup musicians. 

Yet the backup players (headed by guitarist and tour musical director Godfrey Townsend) provided consistent, seamless musical textures from one headliner to another, giving the show a necessary continuity.

The musicians on the Happy Together Tour occupy a kind of middle ground between the one-hit wonders of the rock ‘n’ roll era and megastars who had extended success for 10 or more years. Not having written many of their own songs, they are not often regarded as the kind of major influences that guarantee election to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But their biggest hits retain an exuberance and magic that have endeared them across generations and they are well worth seeing.

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