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Review: The Raspberries at Cleveland's House Of Blues
by Pat Pierson
Artist: The Raspberries
Venue: House Of Blues, Cleveland, OH
Date: November 29, 2004
"Tell Eric Carmen The News..."
It's not that I had my reservations -- the songs ("Go All The Way," "I Wanna Be With You," "Tonight," "Ecstasy," and "Play On") are still defining masterpieces -- but this performance at Cleveland's House Of Blues truly made it clear: The Raspberries are the quintessential power pop band. And no one else comes close.
Since I tend to be an historian/musicologist I gravitate toward way too much analysis and other boring bullshit that dilutes the experience. That or I ramble on obnoxiously to the point of didacticism hell. The fact is, a simple 500 mile drive to Cleveland, Ohio to see four guys in their fifties perform tunes they wrote and recorded three decades ago answered all my questions about who REALLY invented power pop.
The term "Power Pop" has been grossly misused and abused over the past 30 years. Mainly because it's very hard to distinguish from pop/rock (or rock/pop) depending how you slice it. In an 1978 issue of his magazine, Bomp!, the late Greg Shaw went to exhaustive ends to explain how it all happened and why the Raspberries (more precisely Eric Carmen's songs for the Raspberries) were the ones that took the genre to its ultimate design/refinement. Since then many critics/music journalists think Big Star (my favorite band, actually) did. These days Rolling Stone magazine doesn't care enough to review a bio on Carmen and the 'Berries nor their historical reunion gig last week. Bastards.
Today's major critics don't have a fucking clue. (Well, some do, but it's not enough to reach general consensus amongst those who matter and that's what's disturbing.) When outlining the evolution of power pop, Shaw also erroneously took liberties to exclude The Beatles and The Hollies but include Abba and Bay City Rollers in his distinctions of the power pop aesthetic. We all make mistakes. All of them helped the cause. Mainly, Shaw was trying to get at the concept of "power" and the delineation between pop, rock, and power pop. Here's one of the most important things he wrote: "Their (Raspberries) roots went back to bands like The Choir and Cyrus Erie who'd been championing Mod music since 1965... The Raspberries were the essence of Powerpop, more than the Who or any of their prototypes. On their best records, every nuance, every tiny bit was flawlessly designed to create an overall impact that's never been matched. The reason: Eric Carmen had studied and distilled into the group everything that was great in all his personal idols, not just the Who but the Beatles, Lesley Gore, the Beach Boys, Tommy James and more. Records like "Go All The Way," "Tonight," "Ecstasy," "I Wanna Be With You" and "Let's Pretend" illustrate the Powerpop ideal: pop beyond question, dealing with themes of innocence and teenage romance, without schmaltz, with the power of pure rock and roll giving force to the emotions being conveyed. All the dreams and frustrations and urgent desires of teenage emotion are captured in these records as never before or since."
Greg Shaw is still right.
Perspective: The Big Star/Badfinger debate and why The Raspberries matter...
Big Star and Badfinger were rock bands who had a lot of pop and mod influences in their music. Unlike The Raspberries they also exuded some of the then-current hippie sensibility (i.e. laid back attitude, progressive lyrics). (Badfinger had the "Apple" cache and didn't get stigmatized by their hits.) The Raspberries, since they had a huge hit with "Go All The Way," were perceived as something different, even though on album, they tread some of the same ground Badfinger and Big Star did (i.e. "Don't Want To Say Goodbye," "Should I Wait," "Cry," and "Might As Well"). So what's it all about, Chico?
Just as Alex Chilton's more haunting and insular depths became Big Star's MYSTIC, Eric Carmen's material made The Raspberries sui generis. Amongst power pop it stands out as glaringly as Jimi Hendrix does in the pantheon of hard rock guitarists. Add to it the sophistication of "Overnight Sensation," and other gems like "I Can Hardly Believe You're Mine," "Nobody Knows" and "I Saw The Light" and there shouldn't be a reason for dolts like Rolling Stone to lose sight of such a prize.
Since Eric Carmen took such a hard turn into the pop landscape (a major "sell-out" if there ever was one) the music critics tossed him and the Raspberries aside like a mere afterthought. This was a cynical gaffe of disastrous proportions. The knee-jerk gravitation of the past 20 years towards Alex Chilton's Big Star can be seen as guilt-ridden historical revisionism. Big Star did deserve the credit they received. It's just that everyone else forgot about proportions. The Raspberries, and their lack of "cool" and cult hero fascination (none of their members died and their music is not made for reinterpretation), were left in the dust.
Over the years I've tended to underrate the Raspberries catalog, especially in light of Big Star and other things. I was wrong. Sure the Raspberries tend to be a sentimental band, and this has done more disservice to their legacy. But THAT'S NOT THEIR FAULT, nor is it something that should be slagged. If anything, it gives them their identity. It also gives their music a sense of purity and sincerity no band in 1972/1973 had. The concept of power pop has never been about "mystery" as much as it's been about "expression." The Raspberries were able to express the emotions in a much more powerful and articulate way than anyone else, that's why they rule.
They said it was exactly 31 years to the day they last performed together (which was for a taping of "The Mike Douglas Show" with Joe Namath and Billie Jean King). The show was amazing. The guys looked a lot older, obviously, but played everything with wicked execution. It was a time.
"We should be on by now..."
-David Bowie ("Time")
With the rise of the curtain (after a beautifully heartfelt short intro film made by Bernie Hogya and Ken Sharp) it all came alive.
There is something so specific about the Raspberries' music and Friday night's performance that makes it impossible to "compare" it to anything else, unless you've ever experienced another artist who is in their own "universe." The elements that made the night so incredibly intense will never converge again. That's why I drove 500 miles to bear witness.
Beyond my personal desire to see the original line up reunite and play a set of music, there was the legacy: the storied "Almost Famous"-like tale of local boys done good. But we all know what happened. We all know the break down. Fame was SO fleeting. Two boys from the Choir left amidst the breaking of friendships and musical bonds less than 18 months after they cracked the top 5 with "Go All The Way." It was the usual cracks due to "star-making" machinery and the popular song; and because they were young. Eric and Wally "prevailed" for another year (with a great upstart Scott McCarl on bass and Michael McBride on drums) and a classic final album, but everything fizzled out with far too much friction between the "old comrades" and a lack of public interest. Wally never regained such rock and roll prowess despite respective attempts with Fotomaker and Tattoo. Eric Carmen got a career in pop music, but lost "the band."
Cynics come and cynics go. Fans (myself included) can get misty eyed and myopic. Brass tacks: Who the Fuck knew?! 1999 almost happened. Eric bought a Rickenbacker guitar, learned a Beatles cover or two and was "ready." But old tensions brewed and killed it. Those who saw Eric sing "Go All The Way" with Ringo's All-Star Band maybe thought it was plausible. To me, that sounded like fun, but was more part of a tourist attraction, and something of an enjoyable ride with a Beatle. It wasn't "Looking For The Magic."
"Because a photograph is like an hourglass out of time..."
-Dwight Twilley ("Looking For The Magic")
We can't bring Phil Seymour (Dwight Twilley's better half) back from the grave. That's the hourglass out of time. I have photographs of George Harrison and John Lennon. I won't be able to see them reunite with Paul and Ringo. Deep down, Eric Carmen knew (KNOWS) why his band is so special. Deeper down is something you or I can't get at: The roots. That's mysticism and the power of coming age in the years of Beatlemania. These are words. They lived it. Eric, Jim, Dave and Wally drank from the cup. They (The Choir and Cyrus Erie) made sure they got the gig opening for The Yardbirds and The Who. Wally made sure he asked Pete Townsend, "how do you play 'Substitute'?" They even lent The FUCKING Who their equipment?!!! That's beyond devotion. That's pure LOVE.
"But if I had my time again, you all know just what I'd do..."
-Ian Hunter ("Ballad Of Mott [26th March 1972 Zurich])
So what happened?
I don't know much beyond the fact that everyone ironed out their differences to reclaim the glory. And reclaim it they did. We've heard a lot about "bands" reuniting lately, and many, like The Stooges, Roxy Music, and New York Dolls were pretty incredible, but none of those reunions packed the same punch as this one did. With Iggy, you know he's been tearing it up most of his career in similar fashion to his birth with The Stooges. Was the reunion cool? Of course, but it wasn't a big surprise. Roxy was sweet but without Brian Eno, it can't hold up to the standards we're looking for. New York Dolls?? See: The Beatles. The only reunion I can draw a close parallel to is the Sex Pistols, but even that one bore mixed results (Johnny Rotten singing the songs drastically different and the band being hit or miss.) And (my personal favorite band) Big Star sucked.
"Used to feel so fucking optimistic..."
-Eric Carmen ("Starting Over")
The optimism is here again. This was the greatest reunion concert I've ever seen, though I wasn't so sure of that from the get go. Things started off strong with "I Wanna Be With You" and a sharp cover of The Who's "I Can't Explain" but the power had yet to really rise to its optimum level. They made good with David Smalley's "Makin' It Easy" and then gave everyone the first BIG surprise of the night with Eric singing "Play On" as a dedication to the band's second bassist, Scott McCarl. It was spot-on. Still, they had yet to conquer. Solid, mind you, but not transcendent. The next four songs were nice mid-tempo fare: a cover of The Beatles' "Baby's In Black," a nice take of "Nobody Knows," "Should I Wait" (David Smalley's best song) and "If You Change Your Mind" which sounded great, despite Eric's mis-step with the lyrics. It's been a while since he sang these songs, kids. Wally finally entered the program with "Come Around And See Me." Like Eric and Dave, Wally's voice had not lost any of its clarity or tone. These guys sounded like no time had passed. Another Beatles tune ("No Reply") followed. They can sing the pants off these Beatles songs. Nice.
Sea Change: It was slight but pronounced. "I Saw The Light." This was where they began to shine. It was better than the record and much more like a full-blown version of the demo that had a gorgeous Left Banke feel to it, with lush harmonies. Incredible. From there they rode well doing more spot-on album cuts ("Might As Well," "It Seemed So Easy," and "Last Dance") aptly proving they were never just a studio band.
"We must be in heaven, man..." The latter part of the set is where everything took on grand dimensions. It's also where they really stacked the deck in their favor. It was a pay-off unparalleled.
It began with "Let's Pretend." Sung not nearly as high, but as powerful as the original. Carmen proving he was in a zone and capable of blowing the doors off of anyone. This is where it was becoming very exciting. One last Beatles cover came: a fond take of "Ticket To Ride."
The next two songs were from The Choir. The first was a drop-dead gorgeous pop song ("When You Were With Me") sung by Wally which had his wife and daughter (up in the balcony) in tears. One look at them in that moment had everything welling up. I had to look away. Next was the "big local hit," ("It's Cold Outside") sung by Smalley. Beautiful. Now it was time to show off.
We all knew the big hits were still to come. That was the "sick" anticipation. BUT, who knew that "I Can Remember" would be the tune to take this night to heights unforeseen? Well, that's what fucking happened. Talk about unable to breathe. This was spectacle. This was pop and rock merged to its finest distillation. And unlike the released version, it didn't come across as a "stretch." It was fleshed out in a way that brought it new legs. The performance was sheer magic, proving how incredible Wally and Jim are. This was the moment to die for. "Starting Over" followed and was fine. The next big moment was "Don't Want To Say Goodbye" which perfectly captured the spirit of '72 and gave Wally and Eric the classic duel-vocal spotlight. Unlike anything else this night. Wally's natch hard rock gem, "Party's Over" followed proving the band had balls.
Endgame: "Overnight Sensation" was performed live with Jim Bonfanti and Dave Smalley for the first time with Bonfanti pulling it off with ease and his own stamp and Smalley doing the low-bass background vocals. They kicked it old school and it was truly mind-blowing. "Tonight" was nuts. Yes, they rocked as hard as The Faces. And, yes, Eric Carmen was god at this point, singing with some unleashed force that blew all of us away. "Hard To Get Over A Heartbreak" followed. A bit off, despite it being Dave's most Raspberries-friendly song. "Ecstasy" was the set closer and just reinforced the fact that this was the true essence of power pop. Music as an orgasmic release. Definitely. Or as some recent scribe so aptly put it: "It's like being fucked really hard by Mickey Mouse."
Encore: Despite my reservations for "I'm A Rocker" it worked. (I always felt it was a bit forced and something close to an attempt to reach the audience who didn't take them seriously. "All Through The Night" was always more convincing.) This was Eric's greatest vocal performance of the night. It was just absolutely ripping.
And they closed the night with "Go All The Way." And I'm in heaven. And they're gods. And The Raspberries hung around so that afterwards we could meet them and gush about how fucking incredible they were. And get our pictures taken with them.
©2004 Pat Pierson
All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.
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