Thursday, December 15, 2005
Have you ever noticed that bands have a tendency to suck on Saturday Night Live? A distant, immobile audience and unblinking stage lights can sap the juice out of some great live bands. The television studio seems to rob them of their energy. They resemble figures from a wax museum running on nine-volt batteries. It can be ugly.
So I was concerned about PacRep’s new theatrical concert. Billed as The Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it promised a live musical tribute “from Elvis to Motown to the British Invasion.” The potential for disaster seemed high.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about with musical director Don Dally at the wheel of this thing. Even with a half-full theater on a Sunday night, the performances rocked, the energy was high and the selection of songs painted an interesting if fragmented portrait of rock’s early evolution.
Inspired undoubtedly by the success of his productions of Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story and its ensuing tribute concert, Dally has widened the scope of the basic premise to include acts from Bill Haley to The Kinks. As a show it works well. All the songs he’s chosen are classics. There’s not a sour tune in the bunch.
From the early grit and thump of Haley, Chuck Berry and Elvis to the sugary sweet commercial sounds of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers to the rich soul of Motown, the play does a commendable job of connecting the dots. The second act is dominated by The Beatles, but includes some nice surprises.
Apparently, Dally has chosen songs based more on the talent he has at hand and less on rock’s legendary progression from the early ’50s to the mid-’60s. As great as Buddy Holly was, he probably doesn’t deserve four songs in a balanced retrospective of the era. Nonetheless, with an actor/musician like Travis Proelle on hand, you gotta go with what works. Proelle’s got a classic voice, this crew knows how to do Buddy and the PacRep audience loves it, so Buddy Holly it is.
But Proelle isn’t done there. Although somewhat unconvincing as Elvis, Proelle still vocally attacks classics like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog” like he means them and that’s all rock really asks of anyone—to feel it. And as Paul McCartney he’s fantastic, nailing both the sound, but also the earnest, wide-eyed expressions.
But this concert is much more than the Travis Proelle show. Dally has brought together Buddy’s backing band and they also prove their versatility. In addition to being the only ones who delivers their lame, between-song lines with any sort of relaxed rock cool, drummer David Schulz and bassist Luke Darnell also take impressive steps in the spotlight while anchoring the band.
Schulz croons “Earth Angel” with cheeky aplomb and is awesome as Del Shannon during the number “Runaway.” Luke Darnell legitimately rocks the Bill Haley tune “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and as Ray Davies rips the punkish Kinks’ tune “You Really Got Me.” (He also manages to hit on every one of the classic stand-up bass tricks including “the possum,” “the phallic straddle,” “the caveman heft” and even “the staircase.”)
Daniel Simpson brings the soul to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, The Contours (“Do You Love Me [Now That I Can Dance]”) and most memorably Sam Cooke. His version of “Chain Gang” is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
The back-up singers Lydia Lyons, Charmaigne Scott, and Kay Akervik provide the lush vocal color to the classic doo-wop numbers. Scott steps front and center to rip the top off The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” and The Supremes’ “Baby Love” and “Stop in the Name of Love.” Then Lyons, seen most recently in PacRep’s Johnny Guitar, does a convincing Leslie Gore (“It’s My Party”) and a soulful Dusty Springfield (“I Only Want To Be With You” and “Son of a Preacher Man”).
But the trippiest part of the whole shebang is Tim Biancalana. The guy looks, but more importantly sings, exactly like the young John Lennon. Biancalana has obviously studied Lennon—right down to his awkward expressions and mannerisms. It’s not just convincing, it’s spooky—especially on the heels of the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s assassination.
Yet the engine driving this whole beast is Dally. Not only has he designed two strong set lists, but he’s also a killer on the guitar. There are number of points in the show where he unleashes some truly sick leads. The guy can play. In fact, despite the confines of theater, the songs jump (although, at times, I wished the band had the latitude to air some of the songs out a little).
Nonetheless, PacRep’s tribute rocks, and that’s all you really need to know. That, and the show’s been extended through the month of January. I know, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll—but I like it.