Report: The Rascals Live in NY
At the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, December 13, the first of a series of much-anticipated reunion shows brought out all the old freaks and even a few young ones. Salute to Little Steven!
As I walked into the crowded lobby of the just-restored Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, a suave, dapperly dressed older man smiled and welcomed me. He introduced himself as Dave Brigati and said it had been a long time since he had seen me.
Actually we had never met – he had mistaken me for someone else – but it was a great harbinger for the warmth and friendliness of the show we had both come to see. The original line-up of the Rascals, perhaps the best 1960s rock band to come out of the New York City environs, was reuniting for its first public concert in some 40 years. On the stage would be Dave’s brother Eddie – the band’s co-lead singer and two-fisted tambourine shaker (hereafter referred to in this story just as Brigati while his brother will be identified as Dave) – along with vocalist/organist Felix Cavaliere (the band’s leader), guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli.
In rock circles, this concert – the first of six at the Capitol – was considered a miraculous event; differences between Brigati and Cavaliere had scotched previous attempts. (Three shows remain this Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 20-22; there is also a stint planned for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla., during Memorial Day weekend.) The Rascals, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members who scored nine soul-, jazz- and Latin-inflected Top Twenty rock hits, including three Number Ones, on Atlantic Records between 1966-1968 essentially split when Brigati left in 1970. Cavaliere continued a while longer on a new label, to diminishing returns.
They had come together in 1965 after Dave, who was a singer with Joey Dee and the Starliters (“The Peppermint Twist”), got his brother, Cavaliere and Cornish into the band. Danelli, meanwhile, had worked with Cavaliere as part of Sandra Scott and her Scotties, a Vegas band for which they wore kilts. So when they started on their own, the Rascals weren’t kids jumping from the garage, or art school, into a band. They were seasoned.
They played instruments well, loved R&B and soul, were schooled in vocal-group harmony singing, and could do the kind of frenetic stage-show entertaining that Dee had perfected. But while Dee was part of their DNA, so too was the new era of rock in which acts like the Beatles and Rolling Stones expressed themselves, and their ideas, in their songwriting. And, because Brigati and Danelli were from New Jersey (Cavaliere was from Pelham, N.Y.), they became the Jersey bridge between the earlier Four Seasons and the later Springsteen, as well as enduring heroes of Italian-American rock.
After a phase of covering, and often improving upon, soul hits like the Olympics’ “Good Lovin,’” they moved on to songwriting (by Cavaliere and Brigati) by turns beatific (“It’s a Beautiful Morning”) and politically relevant (“People Got to Be Free”). One of rock’s great mysteries is why the hits suddenly stopped coming after “People” reached Number One in 1968, despite fine songs like “A Ray of Hope,” “Heaven” and “See.”
It seemed it would take an act of God to get them back together now. In reality, it took the closest living human equivalent of a god – Steven Van Zandt – to do it. He had inducted the band into the Hall of Fame in 1997 in a speech so memorable it got him an acting job on The Sopranos. Hailing the impact of their sexy “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” on his Jersey youth. He has been championing them on his Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show and elsewhere ever since.
Last year he and wife Maureen got them to reunite for a private charity event, and for this concert stand they served as executive producers. Van Zandt and Marc Brickman also produced and directed a multi-media stage show to give the reunion dramatic heft and historical context, and there has been talk it could be the basis for a Jersey Boys-like Broadway musical. The production even had a printed Playbill and a formal name, Once Upon a Dream, also the title of the band’s ambitiously artful, two-disc 1968 album.
The multi-media dimension was impressive and will be discussed later, but the live band was top-notch and the sound superb. They did not wear the cute schoolboy shirt collars and short ties of their early “Young” phase – some things are best left in the past. Cavaliere, standing on a platform to a rear side of the stage, played the large organ while singing his leads with a strikingly yearning, catch-in-the-throat soulfulness. He could be dreamily melancholy on “Groovin’,” desperate on “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” and triumphant on “People Got to Be Free” and “Ray of Hope.”
Cornish, standing below and in front of Cavaliere, offered all sorts of excitingly tasty guitar fills and brief solos. Danelli, wearing a black outfit, projected a no-nonsense, mature insouciance as he propelled the rhythms forward. There were three back-up singers on stage, Angela Clemmons, Dennis Collins and Sharon Bryant, plus bassist Mark Prentice and an amazing second keyboardist, Mark Alexander, who perfectly recreated the swinging horn sounds on “A Girl Like You,” “Carry Me Back” and more.
Since he has stayed active performing all these decades, often doing Rascals hits, it’s not that great a surprise that Cavaliere sounded good. The bigger question was Brigati, the handsome heartthrob of the band in its prime, who has had pretty limited exposure since then. While his voice was a little shaky on show-opener “It’s Wonderful,” and subsequently needed some slight caressing by the back-ups, he soon found his confidence and emanated joy. With that great smile and aura of ebullience intact, especially when he shook the tambourines or supplied high harmonies to Cavaliere’s grittier leads, he was the show’s riveting central attraction.
And his lead vocals got better as the show progressed – the insinuating purr of “Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart,” a Sal Valentino/Beau Brummels-like introspection on the psychedelic “Find Somebody,” the uptown-soul etherealness of “Baby Let’s Wait.” And on the romantic ballad “How Can I Be Sure,” the Rascals composition most likely to enter the Great American Songbook, he handled the high notes with such tenderness and class that he earned the night’s first standing ovation (other than one for the group’s entrance). Considering that a fair amount of the New York audience had seen the band in the 1960s, his care with the song meant a lot.
The multimedia show that accompanied, but never competed with, the band featured colorful light projections visible from the stage and along the large theater’s side walls. There were also stage monitors offering filmed recollections from each of the Rascals, shot in close-up that served as segues and set-ups for songs. These not only told the band’s history, but gave the members a chance to talk about what they felt were their best moments. Cornish relished the James Burton-style country-rock flourish he played on “Good Lovin,’” for instance: “Bruce Springsteen told me that’s why he bought the record,” he said.
At times, there was narration by Sopranos actor Vinny Pastore as well as filmed vignettes with young actors portraying the Rascals and bringing to life what the real Rascals had been talking about. In one, Maureen Van Zandt played the songwriter Pam Sawyer, who with Lori Burton (played by Crystal Arnette) brought “Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart” (a song whose sexiness Steve Van Zandt rhapsodized about at the Hall of Fame ceremonies) to the young band.
In his filmed remarks, Brigati recalled how strange that song was when the two women presented it to him, with its descending chord structure, spoken-word verse and sung chorus. Who’d have ever thought you could speak – rather than sing – a hit song, Brigati said, smiling at the irony of that now.
As in the concert itself, Brigati was the charmer in these filmed vignettes – with a droll sense of humor and sweetness that could easily get him cast in the movies. He also showed humility and even regret about the bad times, pointing out in one filmed bit that the band owed Cavaliere for leading it out of cover versions of dance hits and into politically conscious songwriting with a spiritual dimension: “Nobody ever got to thank him for that. This is the time,” he said on the screen, before Cavaliere lead the band on stage into an ecstatically heavenly “Heaven.”
Heaven, indeed, this show was. Let’s hope there’s a bright future for the Rascals – in concert, on record and maybe on the Broadway stage – after this.