Can Alan Parsons read your mind?
Maybe. He knew Cleveland wanted to hear all the hits last night, and he played them.
Can he cheat you blind?
Not likely. At least, he wouldn’t. All said and done, Parson’s Tuesday night show at Masonic Auditorium PAC was an unforgettable rock ‘n’ roll bargain—a spectacle of sound and light that turned an otherwise passé spring evening into a transcendental experience.
Sadly, band cofounder Eric Woolfson—who wrote and sang many of its hits—passed away in 2009 after a long bout with cancer. But Woolfson’s spirit loomed large throughout the evening, particularly on the heady, high-spirited cuts he penned for concept albums like the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976), the Isaac Asimov-influenced I, Robot (1977), and the gambling / fate-centric Turn of a Friendly Card (1980).
Granted, Woolfson wasn’t APP’s only singer. Indeed, the whole point of The Alan Parsons Project was to enlist the most capable performers on the most appropriate tunes. Lenny Zakatek, Allan Clarke, Dave Terry, and Leonard Whiting rank among several vocalists recruited by Parsons and Woolfson over the years, and the band’s lineup of talented instrumentalists (originally comprised of refugees from the Scottish soft-rock group Pilot) likewise rotated on a regular basis.
Still orchestrated by namesake uber-producer Alan Parsons himself, the “Live” Project taking the Masonic stage on May 13, 2014 submitted faithful-but-fresh renditions of all the classics, regardless of who played on the originals. Indeed, these songs—now sung primarily by Michigan native P.J. Olsson—often came off like tributes to Woolfson and the old guard rather than rote covers: Intelligent, energetic, and unexpectedly moving.
You know this music. Certainly everyone over 40 does, and yet it’s likely many ticketholders still shuddered in blissful recognition of tunes they either thought forgot, or never properly attributed to Parsons in the first place. The Project always tip-toed the fine line between art rock and pop, cleverly shuffling busy, progressive musical stylings a la Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd (whose landmark Dark Side of the Moon Parsons engineered) with infectious, radio-ready singles sprinkled with orchestral seasonings—like Electric Light Orchestra, Kansas, and Moody Blues.
The ensemble’s current North American tour coincides with the Sony / Legacy release of The Alan Parsons Project: Complete Albums Collection, a catch-all box set containing every studio album through 1987’s Gaudi—including the never-before-issued Sicilian Defense.
Named for a chess move, the all-instrumental album was more new age than either pop or rock, a musical experiment done in haste at the close of the ‘70s in order to satisfy a lopsided record contract. Arista shelved the tapes. “When you hear it, you’ll know why,” Parsons joked.
But we have some of it—and quite like it, despite Parson’s halfhearted endorsement. Yeah, the keyboard-based disc is a little antiseptic and impersonal, but it has strong melodies. Think Frank Zappa’s Jazz from Hell, albeit less frantic. Also available now on Parson’s recently-updated website (see below) is Livespan—a 2-CD set chronicling the band’s March 2013 stint at Beethoven Halle in Stuttgart, Germany.
The regal-looking Alan and co. largely adhered to the Livespan set yesterday, greeting their Cleveland contingent (and warming up fast) with the boisterous instrumental “I, Robot.” Olsson (with buzz-cut, boots, and jeans) made a grand entrance front-and-center on the synth-laden “Damned If I Do,” delivering the funky tune as well as Zakatek’s recorded version. Soon thereafter, he streaked the stage in a pair of angel wings while his companions tore through a musical interlude.
Perched on a platform overlooking his mates, Parsons switched from his Yamaha Motif keyboard to a red PSR SC-J arch top guitar for the Ammonia Avenue single (and MTV video smash) “Don’t Answer Me.” The up-tempo (if deliberately melancholy) ballad marked Alan’s first vocal of the night: The maestro’s got a terrific singing voice, and we wondered why we hadn’t heard more of it over the years.
A haunting “Raven” and elegiac “Time” came sandwiched between additional Robot offerings (a bubbly “Breakdown” and dance-inducing “Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”). Olsson worked the crowd on the latter—still something of a tearjerker—proffering his microphone toward the audience for the “on and on” background vocal. Parsons then steered into the side-long title suite from Turn of a Friendly Card, and the five or constituent pieces afforded nearly every band member a lead vocal or instrumental solo. Everybody—including Parsons, Olsson, guitarist Alastair Greene, and saxophonist Todd Cooper, bassist Guy Erez, and keyboardist Manny Focarazzo—added lush background vocals and sweet, cherubic harmonies.
Named for the famous Spanish church designed by 19th-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, “La Sagrada Familia” (“Holy Family”) provided a taste of APP’s 1987 album.
Drummer Danny Thompson (Protein, Scott Weiland) kept rhythm and tempo on a kit situated stage right, hitting hard and fast when needed but never sacrificing feel. He also displayed remarkable restraint on the quiet bits, settling in and counting on time with his snare and cymbals. Greene strummed and plucked a black acoustic during the Turn segment, indulging in a bit of flamenco—but the Santa Barbara shredder spent most of his time riffing and soloing on Les Pauls, the crisp tone ringing out from a pair of Marshall half-stacks.
“Wow, that was probably the best so far!” one of our neighbors gushed to his pal after the final note.
We’d be inclined to agree. Bookended by “Turn” proper and its recapitulation, the inspired run through “Snakes Eyes,” “Ace of Swords,” and “Nothing Left to Lose” was a tour de force whose dynamic twists and tempo shifts emotionally engaged the crowd while highlighting the Project’s virtuosity. Focarazzo dazzled from behind his bank of keys (Roland, Korg Triton), Erez thumped his Fender Jazz bass (and triggered a cool wah-wah effect), Greene wailed on his axe, and bearded utility man Cooper did…well, a little of everything.
“We’ll be back after a short coffee break!” quipped Alan, signaling a twenty-minute intermission.
The band didn’t let up during the second set. On the contrary, the already mirthful musicians sounded rejuvenated and ready to completely commandeer the auditorium. Cooper—who by this point had doffed his blue blazer and rolled up his sleeves—alternated between vocals, sax, and incidental percussion. Erez and Olsson occasionally squared off, each making funny faces to see who’d crack up laughing first.
“The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” dipped back to APP’s 1976 debut, but “Fragile” gave listeners a sample of what Parsons is up to these days. Recorded in late 2013, the new non-album digital single was posted to iTunes last month. Olsson rested on a barstool for this one, gently strumming a Takamine acoustic guitar with his thumb draping over the neck.
The main set climaxed with a pair of Woolfson-written beauts from the early ‘80s: “Prime Time” transported listeners back to Ammonia Avenue, and its lyric—“Maybe the stars were right, I had a feeling it’s gonna be my turn night”—probably resonated with spectators on the drive home; it was one of those concerts where you felt fortunate just to be there soaking up the sound. “What Goes Up” hailed from 1978’s Pyramid (mid-80s platters Vulture Culture and Stereotomy were the only APP releases not represented, if our notes are correct).
The mix, incidentally, was sublime, and the lighting pitch-perfect. This is Alan Parsons we’re talking about, after all—a man who helped The Beatles, Hollies, and Pink Floyd sound great when he was still in his twenties. So you can bet the front-of-house techs running the boards knew their stuff.
Immortalized by its use as intro music for the Chicago Bulls basketball team during the Michael Jordan era, the cosmic “Sirius” featured another crackling solo by Greene, then segued into mega-hit “Eye in the Sky”—just like on the album. Again, Olsson unmoored from his mic stand and gave onlookers a shot at singing a verse along with Parsons. A dervish of physicality, Olsson grew eager for reciprocation where movement and dancing were concerned—so he encouraged folks in the mezzanine and balcony to venture closer
“C’mon down!” came his invitation. “Let’s fill in this space down here!”
The fifteen-minute encore consisted of another Eye in the Sky goody—“Old And Wise”—and radio staple “Games People Play.”
You can take it or leave it, but we thought the gig was phenomenal. We wish the turnout had been better for an artist of Parsons’ caliber—the upper tier was nearly empty. But the hundreds of fans on the floor and middle section of the bowl compensated for the absent bodies with exuberant rounds of applause. It took a while for the people seated on the floor to feel truly comfortable moving around or otherwise reacting, but come Olsson’s dispensation everybody was clapping along and chiming in.
Parsons also made a Monday night appearance at Record Den in Mentor, shrugging off powerful thunderstorms to hang out with fans (and autograph everything shoved his way) after a delayed flight into town.