in performance: “it was fifty years ago today – a tribute to the beatles’ white album”

Todd Rundgren. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.

First of all, the math was off.

The tribute tour to the Beatles’ White Album that played the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville on Sunday evening billed as “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today” fell victim to miscalculation. The day of this writing, Sept. 30, marks 50 years to the day since the U.S. release of a cornerstone Beatles recording. It wasn’t the White Album, but rather the masterpiece “Abbey Road.” The White Album, the bundle of fractured fascination that it was, came out in November 1968.

A detail, you say? Hey, this is The Beatles were talking about. Details were, and still are, everything.

What Danville wound up with a good intentioned tribute that was a year late and a few rock ‘n’ roll gems short. It was fun from a purely nostalgic viewpoint and genuinely engrossing when the veteran artists participating in it proved to be performance-fit for the occasion. When they weren’t, well…

The unlikely fivesome covered a career as old as the White Album itself. The members included Monkees mainstay Mickey Dolenz, who became a TV teen idol beginning in 1966; longstanding guitarist, song stylist and producer Todd Rundgren, who began issuing records just as the White Album surfaced; Joey Molland, the only surviving original member of the ‘70s pop group Badfinger; pop/rock songsmith Christopher Cross, whose career broke open at the dawn of the 1980s; and Jason Scheff, the bassist/vocalist who replaced Peter Cetera in Chicago and remained with the horn-driven band for over three decades.

The winners: Scheff and Rundgren. Vocally, they were far and away the show’s strongest entries. Scheff still has a durable range for lighter pop fare that nicely underscored the mounting turbulence of “Dear Prudence” and “Julia” while Rundgren hit the harder stuff – “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter” – with the command of a rock ‘n’ roll sage. Rundgren also took the biggest risks. He was unafraid to add a vaudevillian twist to “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by shooting a squirt gun the size of a bazooka into the audience but stayed solemn for the necessary instrumental investment needed to pull off a dynamic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

The others were more problematic. Dolenz, as he was in Monkees heyday, was a performance clown who mugged his way through “I’m So Tired” and “Rocky Raccoon” without much vocal firepower at all. Molland summoned only a modest vocal charge during “Savoy Truffle” and “Revolution 1.” Cross seemed like he was in another room with quiet, distant singing that suited softer works like “Blackbird” and “I Will” nicely. But he seemed noticeably detached from the rest of the ensemble.

Each of the featured artists were allowed two songs each from their respective careers with Scheff and Rundgren again in the driver’s seat.  Though saddled with tunes he didn’t originally record with Chicago, Scheff offered authoritative takes on a hornless “25 or 6 to 4” and the ‘80s pop ballad “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Rundgren went right for the two 1972 hits that established his career, “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” performing both with cheery freshness. Dolenz aped his way through “I’m a Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Molland gave workmanlike readings of the Badfinger hits “Baby Blue” (which Rundgren served as producer for in 1971) and “No Matter What” and Cross offered capable but somewhat anesthetized versions of “Sailing” and “Ride Like the Wind.”

The members continually entered and exited during the evening, which offered a somewhat disjointed band spirit. Only “Back in the U.S.S.R” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which opened and closed the performance, had everyone onstage at the same time.

A recording of the White Album’s finale tune “Good Night” was played as the audience exited bringing to mind how it and the record’s only other tune sung by Ringo Starr, “Don’t Pass Me By,” were, well, passed by during the performance.

Poor Ringo. So many celebs onstage and not one of them could give the drummer some.



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