Tuesday marked the Canadian premiere of a bio-concert invention about the life, music and times of the Rascals, the New Jersey-based blue-eyed soul band originally known as the Young Rascals but who are absolutely not that any longer. They are best known here for six songs – including Groovin’ and A Beautiful Morning – that topped Canadian charts between 1966 and 1968.
The touring production, which enjoyed a limited run this spring on Broadway, is the passion project of Steven Van Zandt, the long-time musical sidekick to Bruce Springsteen and TV sidekick to the late James Gandolfini. On the acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos, Van Zandt played Silvio Dante, a mob boss’s consigliore who specialized in dispute-resolution. The Rascals could have used Silvio’s services 40 years ago – they broke up in the early 1970s. But the group’s No.1 fan, Van Zandt, made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, and now the four original members are back in a hybrid production of reunion concert interspersed with narrative video segments.
At the Royal Alex, an affable video introduction from another Sopranos actor, Vincent Pastore, praised a magical 1960s’ era and a group that had delivered “electric good news.”
An archival clip used Ed Sullivan to introduce the band – “Let’s open the show with the Young Rascals” – and when the curtain rose it was the Rascals indeed, grinning, time-warped and plugged in for action, with extra players and backup singers to bolster the organ- and guitar-driven sounds and chime in on the upbeat, flower-powered sentiments.
The song was It’s Wonderful, as bouncy and feel-good a number as its title would suggest. “All of my glory made me much more aware of the problem we share,” Eddie Brigati sang. “If we unite, it’ll all turn out right.”
It turned out fine. The concert was a joyous affair of Motown-inspired soul-pop, adventures in psychedelia, scripted wise-cracking and chronological recollections by the band members on screen.
Brigati and organist Felix Cavaliere shared vocal duties. The former was shakier in throat but glad to be on stage. A smiling, plump, prancing jester with maracas and tambourines, Brigati still is the Rascals’ rascal. Cavaliere was better and more soulful in his delivery, though Brigati found his mark on How Can I Be Sure, a touching piece of barbiturated, Bacharach-like melodrama.
Gene Cornish was a happy chappy, flinging guitar picks and making Leo Fender proud. Drummer Dino Danelli hasn’t forgotten a thing about back beats. A standing ovation was awarded for Good Lovin’, a hustle of go-go shimmy and good-time choogle.
Problems? The recreated historical scenes using mop-topped young actors were seemingly done on the cheap; production values are higher on your average Jersey girl’s hairdo. Also, where the collective Rascals memory is highly meticulous when it comes to stories about such things as Phil Spector’s broken foot, Jimi Hendrix’s pompadour and New Jersey joints like the Choo Choo Club, the band was resolutely amnesic when it came to the reasons behind its breakup. On top of that, they lapsed into a fat, unbecoming burst of self-pity and vague finger-pointing: “Nobody was lookin’ out for us. We were innocent. And look what happened to us!”
As the Rascals went, so did the sixties; the People Got to Be Free singers are a living, breathing allegory for its era. They were young, then they were not, then they were gone. Now they are back, with Van Zandt hoping that, with the band’s resurrection, the generation’s make-a-better-world optimism might offset today’s cynicism and discord.
The show ended with See, a dose of sweet nostalgia. “Things ain’t like they used to be, if you want to you can see/ Words of love on chestnut trees, written by sweet memories.” And as a soul-warmed audience exited, the house system blasted the Rolling Stones cover of Time is on My Side. For a couple of hours, it was.