Sunday, November 27, 2016

Under the Streetlamp (Star Productions LLC, CPTV, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the KPBS telecast of a PBS pledge-break special featuring a 1950’s rock revival group called Under the Streetlamp — when I saw the promos for this it took me a while to realize that “Under the Streetlamp” was the name of the group as well as the title of the program! Apparently these people have become stalwarts of PBS’s increasingly intense begging sessions (it’s interesting to study the pitches and realize how PBS’s copywriters are including just about every strategy they can think of, from flattery to shame) and they’ve done two PBS pledge-break specials before, but I’d seen neither one. If you take a look at Under the Streetlamp, with four male members all dressed in matching black suits and with their hair kept short, combed back and Brylcreemed (or whatever the modern equivalent is), you’d probably think of the Four Seasons, and that wouldn’t be coincidence. Apparently the members of Under the Streetlamp were originally one of the casts of Jersey Boys, the sensationally successful biomusical about the Four Seasons, and after their run in that show finished they decided to form their own group and go out on the road — though, fortunately, they did not become just a Four Seasons tribute group and instead learned a wide variety of late 1950’s and early 1960’s rock ’n’ roll.

The members of Under the Streetlamp are Shonn Wiley (that’s how the chyron spelled it!), Brandon Wardell, Christopher Kale-Jones, and Michael Ingersoll, and a fifth person — their musical director, conductor and arranger, Patrick Williams, has a major role in making their act as good as it is. The show opened with Williams and the band playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” — not exactly the first song you expect to hear when you’re watching a TV show billed as a tribute to late 1950’s and early 1960’s rock ’n’ roll — but when the Streetlamps came in they were singing “Rock Around the Clock,” and Williams’ arrangement artfully combined the two songs for a lovely effect. The next song was Martha and the Vandellas’ soul classic “Dancing in the Street” — Motown was among the sub-genres the Streetlamps promised us in their promos but this was the only song from Berry Gordy’s empire they vouchsafed us, and they did it very well even without the shimmering intensity that made the original a classic. After that they did Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” pulling a trick they played several times in the concert — starting a song much more slowly than it was done originally, playing it that way for a chorus and then speeding it up — and though the killer organ lick (which for a while back in 1961 I thought was a flute!) wasn’t as loud or as prominent as it was in Shannon’s original, the whole thing was fun and a worthy version of one of the few really good rock songs from the early 1960’s. (There were Dale Shannon and Ricky Nelson among the solo artists, and the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys among the groups, but aside from them rock really was a pretty dead zone between the death of Buddy Holly and the advent of the Beatles!) The rest of their first set was taken up with a nice version of the rock ballad “Since I Don’t Have You” and a Four Seasons medley (they had to acknowledge their roots!) consisting of “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” — which I can’t hear anymore without thinking of the Forbidden Broadway parody, “Walk like a man/Sing like a girl” — and “Bye, Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye),” a relatively obscure Seasons song to go with the familiar ones.

After the first of their interminable pledge breaks (more tolerable than usual since the Streetlamps were actual in-studio guests and they turned out to be nice, warm, funny guys) they did “Rockin’ Robin,” which was a hit for Bobby Day in the 1950’s and the pre-pubescent Michael Jackson in the 1970’s — and while none of the Streetlamps could match Jackson’s kid voice on this one (it was so high he really did sound like a robin!), they were clearly having fun with the song and they did it engagingly. Next was an odd medley that started with Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” segued into the Drifters’ “Up On the Roof” and “This Magic Moment,” and ended with “Stand by Me,” the beautiful song (rewritten from a gospel piece) that was one of Ben E. King’s first (and biggest) solo hits after he left the Drifters. Like most white singers, the Streetlamps couldn’t phrase as eloquently as Cooke or King, but they did well enough and the songs remain imperishably beautiful — especially “Up On the Roof,” with the haunting street poetry of Gerry Goffin’s lyric and the soaring melody supplied by his then-wife, Carole King. Then came an intriguing version of the song “For Once in My Life” that acknowledged that it was a middle-of-the-road easy-listening hit for Tony Bennett before Stevie Wonder got hold of it, rocked it up a bit (but kept it slow enough that it still worked as a love ballad) and had a hit on it all over again even though it always seemed to me an outlier to Wonder’s usual stuff. On Tony Bennett’s first Duets album he and Stevie Wonder did the song together, but they kept the whole version at the ballad tempo of Bennett’s original, though with some nice harmonica playing and soul “worrying” by Wonder at the end. The Streetlamps did their first chorus at Bennett’s tempo and then sped up to Wonder’s. Then they did Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive and Wail,” though I daresay this probably wouldn’t have found its way into the Streetlamps’ act if rockabilly and big-band revivalist Brian Setzer hadn’t covered it in 1998, 42 years after Prima, his wife Keely Smith and their sax player Sam Butera first recorded it. Shonn Wiley had mentioned in one of the pledge-break interviews that he was a great fan of tap dancing and had studied it, and he showed off his tap skills — he’s the blondest and by a pretty wide margin the cutest of the band members — on “Jump, Jive and Wail,” and he was damned good.

They closed their second set with a Beach Boys medley that oddly came off better than the one they did on the Four Seasons, their original inspiration — I’ve often described the world of early 1960’s rock fandom as, “If you lived, or wanted to live, on the East Coast you thought the Four Seasons were the future of rock ’n’ roll. If you lived, or wanted to live, on the West Coast you thought the Beach Boys were the future of rock ’n’ roll. Little did you know that the future of rock ’n’ roll was in England — and not even in London, in Liverpool!” It began where you might have expected it to, with “Surfer Girl,” though the arrangement used “God Only Knows” as a counter-melody, and then segued into “California Girls” (in a nice chart that didn’t quite shimmer the way the original did — Brian Wilson said it was the first record he made on LSD and, though lyrically it’s a typical “girls” song from the days when virtually all the Beach Boys’ output was about surf, cars and girls, musically it’s a sophisticated composition showing the way to Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” and the unfinished (at least at the time) Smile. The Under the Streetlamp Beach Boys medley went from “California Girls” to “Don’t Worry, Baby” and then — surprisingly — to “Good Vibrations,” which they did surprisingly well except they cheated on the electronic instrument. “Good Vibrations” was ballyhooed when the Beach Boys’ single was released as the first rock record featuring a theremin — though one can see videos from the time and note that the instrument was not a theremin, but a variant thereof in which the sounds were produced by rubbing a strip instead of waving one’s hands in space over an electrically charged rod (which controls the volume) and loop (which controls the pitch) like a true theremin.[1] (Captain Beefheart’s 1966 album Safe as Milk, and particularly its songs “Electricity,” “Yellow Brick Road” and “Autumn Child,” was actually the first rock record to use theremin, and according to the liner notes for the CD reissue of Safe as Milk, the theremin player on it, Sam Hoffman, learned to play the instrument from its inventor, Professor Leon Theremin.) Alas, Under the Streetlamp musical director Patrick Williams, most of whose arrangements were quite clever and added to the songs, copped out on the theremin (or whatever it was) and had the part reproduced by the upper ranges of an organ, much the way he reproduced the high organ part Del Shannon had used in the original “Runaway.”

After the next interminable pledge break, Under the Streetlamp’s repertoire turned decisively towards the middle of the road, with a song called “Brand New Fool” that they performed in a medley with, of all things, the Nat “King” Cole hit “L-O-V-E,” and for their next song they also tapped the Cole songbook, for “That’s All” — which, blessedly, they performed at the slow ballad tempo Cole used on his record and not the speeded-up version Bobby Darin did, which turned it into yet another superficial time-filler for a Vegas lounge act. Their finale was Mitch Ryder’s medley of “Devil with a Blue Dress” and Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” a surprise since little in their previous act had indicated they’d be able to do justice to such raunchy hard rock, and indeed they started “Devil” considerably slower and funkier than Ryder’s version, but they quickly sped up to Ryder’s tempo and they were clearly having fun singing something considerably hotter and less boy-bandish than everything else they’d sung that night. Next was another interminable pledge break, after which we were promised a major encore — but all we got was Under the Streetlamp performing, under the closing credits, a snatch of Bob Seger’s anti-disco “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll” anthem from 1978 — considerably later than most of the Streetlamps’ material — though the line we anti-disco types cherished back then (“Don’t ever take me to a disco/You won’t even get me out on that floor”) wasn’t included. Under the Streetlamp is a quite good, professional group of clean-cut young men who are clearly having fun with their music and who undoubtedly give their audience a good time, too; and if they aren’t tapping some of the darker strains of 1950’s rock, that’s fine because that’s not what they’re about. Their latest PBS pledge-break special was actually quite entertaining and well worth watching.

[1] — It’s more like the ondes Martenot, a pioneering French electronic instrument devised in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, which sounded like a theremin but had a conventional keyboard that was played with one hand to control the pitch, a sliding metal element under the keyboard that could be pulled out and manipulated in place of the keyboard, and a box of controls on the left side of the keyboard that controls volume. The Wikipedia page on the ondes Martenot identifies the instrument used by the Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations” as an “electro-theremin,” which like the ondes Martenot “uses a slider to control an oscillator's pitch.”