One of the most underrated bands in America is probably The Rascals. In the mid 60s, the only consistent chart topping band was The Beach Boys. The Byrds were making their mark, and arguably had the most far-reaching impact, but The Rascals were steadily charting with a string of monster hits. By the end of the decade, they fell off the face of the music scene. And they remained absent for the next four decades. Their songs would occasionally surface in films, with a wistful acknowledgement of their pure brilliance. The band never succumbed to the logical allure of the golden oldie concert circuit.
Behind the scenes over the last few years, Steve Van Zandt was championing the band. Van Zandt inducted The Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. (It was that induction speech that prompted Sopranos creator David Chase to coax Van Zandt into auditioning for the role of Silvio Dante). In between gigs as Springsteen’s guitarist, Van Zandt cajoled the band members to consider a reunion.
Van Zandt saw the attraction of Jersey Boys, Broadway’s somewhat improbable success retelling the story of the far less important Four Seasons. Van Zandt envisioned a reunion of The Rascals, performing onstage but with a narrative biography interspersed between the songs.
The result was Once Upon a Dream, a delightful triumph when produced in NYC, the band’s hometown. A road show ensued, and it recently wrapped up in California. It is heading back to Broadway for another run.
At the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, the audience was rewarded with a glimpse into a simpler yet convoluted time. The quartet that started as the Young Rascals with some undeniably addictive hit singles (“Good Lovin’”) evolved into a socially conscious band that tapped into the era’s gestalt (“People Got to Be Free”).
Van Zandt’s goal was to show that the band was far more than a steady generator of Top 10 hits, and so Once Upon a Dream ambitiously includes a bevy of deep album cuts. Invariably, however, several of these songs have grown creaky with age. That resulted in some rusty moments.
The Rascals are Eddie Brigati (vocals), Felix Cavaliere (keyboard, vocals), Gene Cornish (guitar) and Dino Danelli (drums). They were supplemented onstage by a several other musicians and singers to round out the sound they ably attained in the studio. Danelli was involved with Van Zandt in the early 1980’s on the latter’s solo albums. Brigati was the primary lyricist for The Rascals. Brigati’s more delicate vocals hit their stride in “How Can I Be Sure,” which was warmly received by the audience at the Greek.
Brigati had understandable difficulty hitting the higher notes, which can be forgiven. Felix Cavaliere was acknowledged by Brigati in one of the current-era video interstitial clips as the driving musical catalyst of the band: “Felix had the creative ambition. It started with him. None of us ever got a chance to thank him for that. I guess this is the time.” Cavaliere’s fire burned brightly on stage. Perched behind his keyboards, his vocal prowess seemed somehow undiminished.
Cavaliere’s voice is the centerpiece of several undeniable gems, songs that are as strong as anything else that emerged from the incredibly fertile 1960’s. “Groovin’” and “It’s A Beautiful Morning” remain as emotive as any songs from the vintage era of AM radio when rock and roll was being invented. Lay on that list the wonderful “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” and “A Ray of Hope” and you have a setlist that is the envy of any band.
The current-era video clips were a bit stilted; these four guys are not actors and are undoubtedly more comfortable reading from cue cards. The clips of actors playing scenes from early in the band’s career are corny but work well. Wives of producers Van Zandt and Mark Brickman are seen delivering instructions about the band covering a song with spoken verses and a sung chorus. “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” was the successful result. Vincent Pastore, Van Zandt’s Sopranos co-star was enlisted for some of the video narratives, which fit well with the band’s Italian-American heritage.
Brigati’s was the toughest role in the production, and not just because he was the first to split the band decades ago. The story of the band’s implosion was told in video clips:
“I was the one. Me. Eddie. I did it. I left.”
“Eddie—he was the Rascal. The heart of the band was gone.”
“We ended up doin’ stupid things.”
“Lawsuits, makin’ lawyers rich.”
“We deserved better.”
“We made music, beautiful music. That was our job, our responsibility. Our obligation. Our emotional contract with our audience. That was the contract that mattered. It was somebody else’s job to take care of us, and they weren’t there. And it all went dark.”
What it is: The Rascals are a crucial part of American rock and roll. They never raked in the cash on the oldies circuit. They are the progenitors of blue eyed soul, and influenced countless other bands. If Once Upon a Dream is a bit ragged in parts, so be it. This is a well-deserved victory lap for the Rascals. They are undoubtedly the only band from that era wholly intact and able to participate in a production like this.
Hats off to Van Zandt and Brickman for bucking the odds and pulling off this improbable success.