By Mike Finkelstein
Los Angeles. On a wet Saturday night, Three Dog Night rolled into the beautiful new Arcadia Performing Arts Center to take us back into the early seventies for about seventy-five minutes. Playing live is truly the most immediate strand of being a professional musician. Particularly when the money is there, it’s great work if you can get it. For any seasoned pro, far more often than not, everything goes quite a way beyond “well enough” to call the gig a success. Ever so often, a gig runs into Murphy’s Law, where things just don’t go as planned. I sense that this may have been the case for Three Dog Night’s sold out and eagerly anticipated show at the APAC. They put in a valiant effort while working against a couple of significant handicaps. One lead singer had a bad case of the flu and their regular keyboardist was at home and even more ill.
Three Dog Night is a band with a huge legacy. They lived at the top of the charts in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As a kid, I do remember being very fond of their tunes. When their new single hit the airwaves, you knew it was going to be a good one. With three lead singers the vocals always had a ton of depth, tone, and character. And, they went against the singer/songwriter style of the time in not writing their own material. Rather, they would comb for great songs by upcoming, talented songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, Hoyt Axton, Paul Williams, and even Elton John. At the time this may have seemed a bit unhip compared to their peers. But the song is the bottom line in pop music. If you don’t have a good song to sing, you have nothing at all. Clearly, they had a keen ear for talent and chose well, racking up 3 #1’s, 11 Top 10’s, 18 consecutive Top 20’s and on and on. They had the tunes working for them.
The first thing one notices about the current edition of Three Dog Night is that only two of the original three singers, Danny Hutton and Cory Wells, remain. In the aftermath of a laundry-airing, bridge-burning book by former TDN singer Chuck Negron, he no longer performs with the band. Negron’s parts were sung powerfully Saturday by bassist Paul Kingery. Original lead guitarist Michael Alsup and original keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon still are in the band and that’s not too shabby after 45 years. While Alsup was very animated and rocking out, Greenspoon wasn’t there Saturday night. He is quite ill and Danny Hutton asked the audience to send good thoughts his way. The band’s good friend from Nashville, Eddie Reasoner, filled in for Greenspoon.
When the band played “One” we began to sense that something might be a bit off. Cory Wells, who sang the song magnificently on the record, had most of the vocal spectrum covered nicely for the tune on Saturday. But there were also notes that his voice just would not deliver. At the end of that song we were let in on the details that he had a bad case of the flu and was on steroids to knock it down. The flu even took him right off stage to hurl earlier. Considering that everyone onstage sang harmony throughout the night, it was surprising that they didn’t bail him out and cover the holes in his range on “One.”
The set list was chock full of the hits like “One Man Band,” “Black and White,” “Never Been to Spain,” “Shambala,” “Out in the Country,” and “Easy to Be Hard.” Though the band played these tunes true to the original versions, a crisper, cleaner, more upfront mix on Alsup’s guitar would have been nice as he did play many of the cool, signature licks that galvanized those songs in the first place.
It was certainly a pleasant surprise to learn that, back in the day, TDN had enthusiastically recorded two great tunes that never did hit…for them. But “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (a huge hit for Joe Cocker) and Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy,” (an integral part of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album) were both instantly recognizable.
The evening seemed to end a little early but all things being equal, they salvaged a good show for a very enthusiastic, even dancing crowd. Perhaps “It Ain’t Easy,” was the defining song of the evening, because touring and performing sick can quickly cease to be easy and become more like work.
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