Live Pop Music: The Rascals “Once Upon A Dream” at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

On a brisk Thursday evening none other than the Rascals presented their autobiographical stage show, Once Upon a Dream, at the Greek Theatre. It comes as a pleasant and uplifting surprise to know that all the original members are alive and well, and sounding quite good, indeed. With a strong push from longtime fan, New Jersey disciple, and powerful shaker and mover, Steve Van Zandt, the Rascals have pieced together a fast-paced and engaging narrative centered on their stay at the top of the pop charts. Their career absolutely flourished during the craziest and most turbulent times the mid/late sixties had to offer.

It has been 40 years plus since the Rascals were in their heyday, but on Thursday the music was intact. It was tight and crisp. The guys have aged, of course, and all but Brigati wore hats for this show. Brigati, has put on a fair amount of girth and no longer resembles the striking picture of youth he once was. Who could? But to watch him sing and sway with two tambourines was to see the connection with the past.

For OUAD the entire back wall of the Greek was outfitted with a huge projection screen. Silhouetted in front of the screen were the Rascals, with Cornish and Brigati standing in front, and Cavalliere and Danelli on cool circular risers. This vivid and enormous look delivered a vibe that appropriately evoked a 60’s TV show, perhaps Ed Sullivan.

The Rascals in Action
The Rascals in Action

The key to the success of OUAD lies in its pacing. None of the songs included goes much beyond three minutes and many are less than that. Because their material was tailored to the AM radio-friendly format, very little of it needed to be pared down. The show contained 30 songs over a course of two hours. Spliced with topical footage of the times (psychedelic Sgt Pepper-ish images, plenty of shots of hippie youth communing) and the narrative pieces, the presentation presses a great many memory buttons as it rolls along at a light but very entertaining clip. The shots of Central Park for “Groovin’,” were perfect, just as I had always pictured it.

The show plays up the band’s east coast New York/New Jersey roots skillfully, cutting together the live tunes with vignettes of the band and their accomplices recounting how it all came together and went down. Each member of the group sits on a chair and reminisces. In heavy accents, they told us short but intriguing stories that move the show along. Then the band played another song or two. At other times, younger actors reenacted key moments in the band’s history. The story of the count-in to “Good Lovin’,” was winsome, “Why don’t all three of youse count it in?” But, the long view is that The Rascals’ development began as an amazing covers band, moving into interpreting songs written just for them, and finally testing their wings writing their own tunes with huge success.

We learned that Felix Cavaliere had already been a college student when he hit the east coast bar band club circuit, that guitarist Gene Cornish was hugely influenced by rockabilly cats like Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore and James Burton. Drummer Dino Danelli winsomely recalls how, at age fifteen, he would sneak into clubs and watch drumming legends like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. He was actually allowed to live at one of these clubs for a while. And we also learn of singer Eddie Brigati’s bizarre route into the Rascals, including singing on a hit record with his brother Dave in Joey Dee and the Starliters, being shot by his brother Dave as a kid, routinely upstaging other singers on the circuit by singing convincingly “black,” and entering a three day coma after a traffic accident – as legend has it, all he remembered was how to sing the Rascals repertoire of covers.  We even learned that in 1963 the Beatles opened for them in Sweden, when both bands were in the business of playing “blue-eyed soul” (white guys playing black music-soul and R&B).

The Rascals in Rehearsal
The Rascals in Rehearsal

On Thursday night you couldn’t help but be impressed with how many of these songs were just instantly recognizable. If any band provided a running soundtrack to American popular culture between 1965 and 1970, it would have to be the Rascals as they became a prominent voice of the Love Generation. They were four enormously talented guys making great music and developing as young men in some of the more intense times this country has seen.

The band’s songs were ubiquitous on the radio then, on a level with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In fact, the show points out that the Rascals were not finished off by the British Invasion.  The Brits’ success with their own music actually opened the door for bands like the Rascals to do the same.

Many of the most memorable songs were ones that they wrote. Gems like “Lonely Too Long,” “You Better Run,” “See,” “Groovin’,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “It’s A Beautiful Morning,” and “People got to Be Free,” transported us all back to where we were when they were current. The footage was icing on the cake.

Though they were classified as blue-eyed soul, it was not that simple with the Rascals. They looked white but they were first generation Americans of Italian descent. As kids, they and their families had experienced the humiliation and injustice that come with the prejudice often directed at immigrants. This was nothing like Pat Boone covering Little Richard. They had a large black and white fan base, and it was band policy to make sure that their shows also featured top-notch black acts from the local area of each gig.

If you try to put your finger on what it is about any Rascals’ tune that gets you, it’s hard to narrow it down to one thing. Vocally, Brigati and Cavaliere had something tremendously unique, and combined with the Hammond organ sound it was usually perfection. Cornish’s guitar parts were deceptively great, serving up power and subtle dynamics in the right measures for hit after hit. Danelli’s drumming, busy as it may get at times, is remarkable for the expression and clarity he gets from a light touch. It’s never cluttered.  He certainly learned from watching the masters.

Once Upon A Dream confirms that The Rascals’ music was and still is a truly special blend of the best elements of soul singing, gospel, rock ‘n roll, and pop. Their MO was to capture a vibe and build it into a 3-minute radio-ready send-up that would become timeless. When you hear their songs, you still remember to listen for those special hooks. Uncanny.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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