Why can’t every concert be like that? “That” being The Rascals innovative way in presenting their history as they did on Saturday night, October 19, 2013 at the Orpheum Theatre, the fourth night of a five night engagement in Phoenix. Although the Rascals’ show, “Once Upon a Dream,” is marketed as a Broadway musical (admittedly, it did play on Broadway), in reality, it’s a concert, a great concert, with some scripted, prerecorded videos that play between songs.
Granted, what The Rascals are doing can’t be done by every band. The Rascals aren’t showcasing a body of work that spans nearly 50 years. Rather, they are showcasing an iconic, five year body of work from almost 50 years ago that the four original members, singer Eddie Brigati, keyboardist/singer Felix Cavaliere, drummer Dino Danelli and guitarist Gene Cornish haven’t performed together in over 40 years. It would be fairer to label “Once Upon a Dream,” as a reunion tour rather than a musical. As reunion tours go, this one rates near the top.
Credit E Street Band member, Steven Van Zandt for masterminding the endeavor. A longtime Rascals fan, (he gave the speech for the Rascals’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Van Zandt convinced the Rascals to reunite. Along with his wife, Maureen, Van Zandt produced the show and enlisted the help of lighting and production designer, Marc Brickman, to help stage a hybrid of a documentary and a live concert. Given that the personnel of the Rascals aren’t exactly household names except to rabid Rascals fans, the documentary aspect was a wise addition.
One result of Van Zandt’s and Brickman’s collaboration was a large video screen at the back of the stage which was used between songs to show scripted, current interviews with each member of the band, some staged moments of the band’s history where actors portrayed the members of the Rascals in their youth and a few historical tidbits about the Rascals as told by “The Sopranos’” Vincent Pastore. During the playing of the music, the video screen became a testament to Brickman’s psychedelic visions.
After a recorded announcement came over the speakers encouraging audience members to take pictures with their cell phones, tweet them, Facebook them, and do whatever the fu.. you want, the large video screen at the back of the stage projected a young girl in a meadow reciting “Once Upon a Dream” and then a clip of Ed Sullivan announcing “the Young Rascals.” With that cue, the Rascals launched into “It’s Wonderful,” “(I’ve Been) Lonely Too Long,” and “What is the Reason,” three top 50 Billboard singles from 1966 and 1967.
The first three songs set the mood for the next two hours. Brigati delivered solid vocals. Cavaliere was the embodiment of blue eyed soul with his voice and the sounds he coaxed out of his Hammond organ. Danelli amazed with his twirling drumstick work and tight, yet easily to overlook complex drumming. Cornish surprised with some blazing guitar work. You can have all the flashy, psychedelic images and light work behind you that you can imagine (and the Rascals did), but if the musicianship isn’t there, the production falls flat on its face. The members of the Rascals made sure that, like the platforms that Cavaliere and Danelli were on, the performance would remain elevated all night long.
With a set list that comprised 29 different songs, the Rascals sated the appetite of the hardcore fan by playing some deep tracks as well as pleased the casual fan by performing their hits. Not surprisingly, through recognition as much as performance, songs such as “Groovin,’” “Good Lovin,’” and “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” received standing ovations from the relatively sedate audience. But it was songs such as “Do You Feel It” and “A Girl Like You,” that showed that other songs from the Rascals’ soulful catalog can remain timeless as well.
As was pointed out in the video interviews, the Rascals were not afraid to write songs outside of their successful box. “Find Somebody” was presented with a psychedelic flavor. “Sueno,” started with Cornish on acoustic guitar with a flamenco flair. “You Better Run,” was as hard rocking as the Pat Benatar cover of the song was years later.
With a richness helped by the contributions of bass player Mark Prentice, keyboardist Mark Alexander and the backup singing of Sharon Bryant, Angela Clemmons and Dennis Collins, the Rascals’ music didn’t sound dated like one might expect of songs from the 1960’s. Instead the songs took on a fullness that sounded much better live than on the original recordings.
Although the audience was, for the most part, content to sit back and absorb the music rather than jump up and succumb to it, the crowd did chant “Dino, Dino,” after Danelli’s work on “A Girl Like You.” The moment that finally brought the house down, or more accurately, the crowd up, was Brigati’s vocals on “How Can I Be Sure.” To say he nailed it would be an understatement.
Although not quite the finale, the show reached its climax with “People Got to be Free,” Brigati’s and Cavaliere’s call for to arms for tolerance and freedom. The upbeat song got people singing and once again earned a standing ovation.
Given the Rascals ultimate demise and the refusal of the band members to work together for over 40 years, the lyrics to “A Ray of Hope,” the regular set’s final full number, seemed somewhat prophetic. “First there's a lot of things we've got to rearrange. Put an end to hate and lies so peace can come and truth shall reign. As long as there is a ray of hope.” That ray of hope may have been on hold for 40 years, but thankfully the Rascals, with a little prodding from Steven Van Zandt, rediscovered it and is now sharing it with the rest of us.
If one was looking for a chronological, historical perspective of the Rascals from start to finish, “Once Upon a Dream,” would fall short. Songs weren’t played in exact order of release and the back ground interviews jumped around in time. But that doesn’t detract from what “Once Upon a Dream” is. First and foremost, it’s a celebration of the Rascals’ music played with perfection by the original Rascals themselves. That you can learn a few things about the members of the Rascals while listening to them play is a bonus. Few concerts, if any, are history lessons. But as “Once Upon a Dream” showed, when done right, it’s how a concert can be.
Set One: It’s Wonderful |( I’ve Been) Lonely Too Long | What Is The Reason | You Better Run | Carry Me Back | Slow Down | Mickey’s Monkey/Turn On Your Love Light/Mickey’s Monkey (reprise) | Come On Up | Baby Let’s Wait | Too Many Fish In The Sea | If You Knew | Hold On | I Ain’t Gonna Eat My Heart Out Anymore | Good Lovin’
Set Two: Love Is A Beautiful Thing | Groovin’ | Do You Feel It | Away Away | It’s A Beautiful Morning | Sueno | Find Somebody | A Girl Like You | It’s Love | How Can I Be Sure | People Got To Be Free | Heaven | A Ray of Hope | People Got To Be Free (reprise)