Reunion bands: Ain’t nothing like the real thing

(Above: The two original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and five other guys play “Free Bird.”)

By Joel Francis

When the Temptations and Four Tops took the stage Saturday night with only one original member in each ensemble, it raised questions of truth in advertising. Can a band be billed by its legendary name if only one of its musicians is an original legend?

Few bands are as fortunate as Los Lobos and U2 to have retained the same personnel since their debut. Some bands, like Wilco, have a different lineup on nearly every album.  But the reunion craze has accelerated hiring ringers to fill in for dead or uncooperative musicians.

When Journey played the Midland a few weeks ago, longtime singer Steve Perry had been replaced with Filipino Arnel Pineda, who was 8 years old when the band’s first album came out. No one complained, but Pineda’s job is essentially to sound like Perry while founding guitarist Neal Schon and the rest of the band deliver their signature sound.

Similarly, Yes were primed for a 40th anniversary tour when lead singer Jon Anderson fell ill. Rather than cancel the tour, the remaining members, who include Oliver Wakeman, son of original keyboardist Rick Wakeman, recruited a new singer off YouTube.

The majority of fans will tolerate a minor substitution. There were no grumbles when bass player Eric Avery sat out Jane’s Addiction’s second go-round. Most fans will recognize that age and time will prevent everyone from taking part. But when the skeleton of the original crew drag new faces out under the old name, it starts to take advantage of the people who kept the hunger for a reunion alive.

There’s also a slight double-standard in play. Few Beatles fans would be satisfied with a Beatles “reunion” featuring Paul, Ringo, Julian Lennon and Dhani Harrison, but The Who have completed not one but two successful (read: lucrative) tours minus the late John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Of course a true Fab Four reunion never happened, while The Who have launched a handful of “farewell” tours, but the rhythm section of Moon and Entwistle defined The Who’s sound just as much as John and George did for the Beatles.

Swapping drummers and bass players is one thing, but the road to finding a new frontman is fraught with peril. INXS failed miserably in their reality TV quest to carry on after the premature death of Michael Hutchinson. However, 14 years after Freddy Mercury died, Queen – minus drummer John Taylor – reconvened with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rogers. Many of the band’s East Coast concert date sold out quickly.

When Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger hired Cult singer Ian Astbury to hit the road as The Doors they were faced with a lawsuit from drummer John Densmore and forced to tour as Riders on the Storm. The moniker didn’t alter any setlists, but it at least let the fans know they weren’t getting the same guys that worked together in the ‘60s.

Then there are the jazz orchestras that continue to tour despite the death of their bandleader. The Count Basie and Glenn Miller orchestras draw decent crowds when they visit the area, despite Miller’s disappearance during World War II and Bill Basie’s death a mere 25 years ago. The Gem Theater will host a Jazz Messengers reunion concert on October even though bandleader Art Blakey died in 1990.

The reason why a musician will resurrect his old band with ringers is obvious: Billy Corgan will sell a lot more tickets and albums as the Smashing Pumpkins than he would alone. And while there’s no clear-cut solution, I think this is a rare example of capitalism and artistry joining forces to provide the ultimate answer.

If a band’s catalog is strong enough, fans won’t mind shelling out $30 to $50 as they did Saturday night at Starlight to hear someone else sing “My Girl” and “Baby I Need Your Loving.” On the other hand, if bands plug on minus crucial components, they might be confined to the state fair/town festival circuit Three Dog Night and the Guess Who have been riding for years.


Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

(Above: Are they still tempting? “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” in 2008.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Halfway into his band’s set Saturday night at Starlight, Otis Williams, the last living original member of the Temptations, dedicated the evening’s performance to the late Motown producer Norman Whitfield.

It was fitting. Whitfield wrote several of the hits showcased during the night, like “Cloud Nine,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” It also matched the unofficial theme of the night: honoring the contributions of the departed.

The absence of late Temptations frontmen Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin was obvious from the opening notes of “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” The group sounded good and the performance was strong, but something was missing.

Your verdict on the success of the show depends on how well you thought lead singer Bruce Williamson did filling some impossibly large shoes. It would be easy to cynically dismiss the night as nothing more than overblown karaoke, but it’s very hard to ignore the energy and delight they delivered to the crowd. The truth is these songs are so strong they sound good no matter who is singing them.

After opening with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” the Temps plowed through their classic catalog for nearly 30 minutes without taking a break. Every song had everyone on their feet, singing along.

Backed by a 10-piece horn section and four-piece band, the vocal quintet nimbly hopped from the propulsive “Ball of Confusion” to the tenderness of “I Wish it Would Rain” and the frustration of “Can’t Get Next To You.”

The only time the band veered from their prime years was to deliver a couple ballads. They also spiced up the set by performing a couple lesser-known numbers from their early Motown years. By the time they rolled into “My Girl” near the end of their 90-minute set it felt like the perfect conclusion. Unfortunately the song was followed by “Can I Get A Witness,” another Marvin Gaye cover. Despite its gospel flavor, the anti-climactic number trigged an exodus for the parking lot.

The Four Tops kicked off the night with a one-hour set. Although they sported as many original members – one – as the Temptations, they did not fare as well. The retirement of longtime lead singer Levi Stubbs was accentuated by slick production that was more Branson than Motown. Save for a pair of medleys that bookended the set, the band’s 1960s heyday was bypassed for ballads that bogged the momentum.

A tour-de-force cover of Heat Wave’s “Always and Forever” that included a long spoken introduction and tender, affecting vocals from Stubbs’ replacement Theo Peoples, drew the quartet’s biggest applause.

Although Starlight was far from sold out – partitions blocked off the back seating section and plenty of other empty chairs remained – few fans seemed concerned by the new faces singing the old songs. The consensus seemed to be, if these guys weren’t keeping the music and memories alive, would would? It’s a good question that doesn’t have an easy answer.

Setlists: Four Tops – Baby I Need Your Loving/Bernadette/It’s the Same Old Song/Just Walk Away/Still Water/Something About You/Ask the Lonely/Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)/Always and Forever/Reach Out I’ll Be There/Standing in the Shadow of Love/I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

Temptations: How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)/The Way You Do The Things You Do/Ain’t Too Proud To Beg/Ball of Confusion/I Wish It Would Rain/Just My Imagination/Papa Was A Rolling Stone/Can’t Get Next To You/You Are So Necessary In My Life/Get Ready/Treat Her Like A Lady/You’re My Everything/The Girl’s Alright With Me/Cloud Nine/Psychedelic Shack/My Girl/Can I Get A Witness