At the Happy Together tour, which passed through Talking Stick Resort over the weekend, it's only natural for a charged-up boomer audience to close its eyes and imagine itself back in the '60s. But you wonder how many fans closed their eyes, thought they were back home watching a PBS Fund Drive music special, and got disoriented when they opened them again. From the canned announcer between acts to the scripted banter about the good old days and where you were in the fall of 1967 when this song sold 16 million copies to the archival footage of the show's stars played in Ken Burns-style slow motion, I don't think there was ever a concert where I felt closer to being hit up for the price of a tote bag.
Oldies package show are supposed to be slick -- they're competing with your memories for your affection, after all, and damn it if there's a note in a guitar break out of place. The five-piece band on this tour is particularly spot-on, reminiscent of the way The Wondermints eerily ape The Beach Boys' recorded sound at Brian Wilson shows. They execute every note you expect to hear, including those the rotating cast of lead singers are supposed to sing but no longer can.
How close did each of these stars come to their younger '60s avatars? Here they are in the order of they performed and -- not coincidentally -- in order of diminishing vocal power.
Gary Lewis and the Playboys: Fair Enough
No one would claim the leader of Gary Lewis and the Playboys was ever a great singer -- even his producer Snuff Garrett has always said he was never less than triple-tracked on every recording. So when all five members of the backup band were singing behind the nasally voiced son of comedy legend Jerry Lewis, no one could really feel shortchanged.
In the old days, Gary used to play the drums and sing, with his riser sitting a good 10 feet on front of the rest of the band. And he had a mysterious accordion player in the Playboys which you could never hear on "This Diamond Ring," "Count Me In," or any of the other hits. It would almost be a badge of hipness if he had an accordion player now. Still, it's interesting to note that the weakest of Saturday's singers had more of a hand in writing his own big hits than any of the others did, including "Everybody Loves a Clown" and "Just My Style," which he co-wrote with Leon Russell -- another badge of hipness if you're over 45. After performing his six songs, Lewis left the stage to a standing ovation, except for those audience members who were probably under doctors' orders to not overexert themselves.
These are enjoyable pop truffles to be sure, but hardly what you'd expect this open display of gratitude for. By now it was clear, everybody short of shitting the bed onstage was going to get a standing ovation.
Mark Lindsay (of Paul Revere and the Raiders): Still Solid
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Of all the acts on this tour, I had the highest hopes for Mark Lindsay, the lead voice of Paul Revere and the Raiders, the great northwestern originals who recorded "Louie Louie" first. His voice has mellowed with age, losing a lot of the grit from early Nuggets classics like "Just Like Me," "Steppin' Out," and "Hungry."
But he did put extra oomph into his later solo hits like "Arizona" (which would indeed be our state's official song if it didn't have such gobbledygook psychedelic lyrics about the Count of the Monte Cristo and Aesop's Fables) and "Indian Reservation," which he remarked was Columbia's biggest-selling single until "that damned twerp Michael Jackson" came along with "Billie Jean."
While he tried and couldn't moonwalk, he did do some high-stepping leg kicks on, you guessed it, "Kicks." The other irony of hearing Lindsay croon "Maybe someday when they've learned Cherokee nation will return" at an Indian casino appeared to go unnoticed by all present.
Gary Puckett and The Union Gap: Maybe Too Good?
I saw Gary Puckett perform on a similar package tour back in the '80s, and at the time I was disappointed with the way he had to lower the keys of all his hits to make them easier to sing.
Whatever was preventing him from making "Young Girl" and "Woman Woman" a pleasurable experience then seems to have been conquered in 2013.
In fact, now the opposite problem exists -- Puckett's holding notes longer than required, and in places he's added a wildly oscillating vibrato that sometimes makes it sound like early David Bowie channeling Anthony Newley.
Even if all his hits are the admittedly same song sideways, it was nice to hear "Don't Give In to Him," a jealous guy anthem that you could imagine Elvis Costello spitting out if it wasn't so sweetly sung by Puckett, who never seemed to get the girl in any of his hits.
Chuck Negron: One Dog Night
Next came Chuck Negron, the voice of Three Dog Night. To be fair, there were three voices in Three Dog Night, and the band seemed intent on replicating all three without Negron's help, although he could do most of the heavy lifting himself on "One" and "Joy to the World."
In a strange decision, Negron sang songs like "Shambala" and "Mama Told Me Not to Come," where he was not the main singer, and left out huge hits like "Easy to be Hard," "An Old Fashioned Love Song," and "The Show Must Go On," where he was.
Still, he did execute a great scream in "Mama Told Me," and won everybody over after a night of song introductions that sounded like they were penned by Billboard magazine's statistical department.
"This song was recorded back in . . . (long pause) Uh, uh, I don't remember shit!"
And of course, "This song is about bullfrogs."
I almost wished I hadn't Google'd that legendary story (recounted in Negron's harrowing biography Three Dog Nightmare) about how his penis exploded from overuse in the '70s because I watched much of his set in physical discomfort just thinking about it.
The Turtles: Almost Perfect
Then came Flo and Eddie, the Turtles, who sounded exactly like men who just turned 20, re-creating their lead vocals as though not a day has passed in between Happy Together and "Happy Together."
Howard Kaylan sounded exactly like he did when he told a girl she had the greatest thing since rock 'n' roll in "You Baby."
They did pepper their all-too brief set with lotsa shtick, like coming out performing PSY's "Gangham Style" and singing "Riders on the Storm" over the intro to "You Showed Me" and then never performing "You Showed Me." They climaxed with "Elenore," their "Happy Together" clone, before finishing with the genuine article.
Then everyone was trotted out to perform a snippet of their biggest hit again, the house lights came on, and then '60s were over. Until you got in the car and heard these songs for the kazillionth time on the radio.
Gary Lewis set Count Me In Sure Gonna Miss Her Save Your Heart for Me Everybody Loves a Clown This Diamond Ring She's Just My Style
Mark LIndsay set Where the Action Is (snippet) Steppin' Out Just Like Me Arizona Hungry Indian Reservation Kicks
Gary Puckett Set Lady Willpower Over You Don't Give In to Him This Girl is a Woman Now Woman, Woman Young Girl
Chuck Negron Set Shambala Celebrate Mama Told Me One Joy to the World
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The Turtles set Gangnam Style She'd Rather Be With Me You Baby It Ain't Me, Babe You Showed Me vamp/Riders On the Storm/Celebration of the Lizards/The End Peaches en Regalia (Zappa & The Mothers cover) Elenore Happy Together