Cleveland broadcasting powerhouse WMMS has a history as one of the most influential tastemakers in FM rock radio, helping break artists like Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and Rush, among others, while the station’s long-running weekly live broadcast, The WMMS Coffee Break Concert, promoted artists as diverse as Warren Zevon, Lou Reed, Tim Buckley, and Peter Frampton, resulting in a wealth of bootleg tapes and records. Although Cleveland hasn’t spawned a rock scene as madly-hyped as, say, Athens, Seattle, or Austin through the years, how can you argue against the influence and importance of such homegrown artists as Joe Walsh and the James Gang, the Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Peter Laughner, Rocket From The Tombs or, perhaps, the most notorious of them all – the Raspberries?
Formed in Cleveland in 1970 by members of two fondly-remembered local rock outfits – the Choir and Cyrus Erie – the Raspberries originally consisted of singer and guitarist Eric Carmen, guitarist Wally Bryson, bassist John Aleksic, and drummer Jim Bonfanti. Aleksic bolted before the group really had its feet on the ground, replaced by guitarist Dave Smalley while Carmen moved to playing bass, completing what is considered to be the “classic” line-up of the Raspberries. Influenced greatly by British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Who, the Hollies, and the Small Faces, the foursome struck gold when their second single, “Go All The Way,” went all the way to #5 on the charts and sold over a million copies.
Coasting on the success of “Go All The Way,” the Raspberries self-titled 1972 debut virtually invented the “power pop” genre, peaking at #51 and spending a whopping 30 weeks on the charts. The band’s ‘60s-era musical roots, whipsmart songwriting, melodic instrumentation, and gorgeous vocal harmonies made fans out of fellow musicians like Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. Carmen and Smalley switched instruments again and a quick follow-up album, Fresh, was released in November 1972. Fresh would yield two big hits with its two singles, “I Wanna Be With You” and “Let’s Pretend,” which would help push the album into the Top 40.
The Raspberries’ Pop Art Live
The House of Blues chain of nightclub/restaurants opened a location in Cleveland in 2004, coaxing the four members of the Raspberries to reunite for the first time in nearly 30 years. After a bit of practice to shake off the ring rust, the band’s best-known line-up – Carmen, Bryson, Smalley, and Bonfanti – climbed on stage on November 26th and ran through an inspired set that featured better than two-dozen songs and included both hits and ‘deep cuts’ alike. The well-received performance led to a ‘mini-tour’ in 2005, a VH1 Classic TV special, and a live concert broadcast on XM satellite radio. One of the band’s 2005 performances was filmed and subsequently released on CD and DVD as Live on Sunset Strip. Oddly, however, the band’s triumphant reunion at the House of Blues in 2004 remained unreleased until now, with Omnivore Recordings rescuing the performance and releasing it as Pop Art Live.
With interest in the Raspberries revived by the use of “Go All The Way” on the hit movie soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy during the summer of 2014, along with the following year’s reissue of all four of the band’s classic ‘70s-era albums as a reasonably-priced box set, the time seems ripe for Pop Art Live. That the band’s electrifying performance belies their three-decade layoff doesn’t hurt any – from the opening notes of the 1972 hit “I Wanna Be With You,” the listener knows that they’re about to hear something special – and the band keeps the energy crackling throughout the two-disc set’s 28 red-hot tracks. Carmen’s voice has lost a bit of resonance over the years, but what it lacks in range it makes up for in character as the singer sounds a bit more soulful. Instrumentally, the band itself still kicks ass, with Bryson’s stinging guitar and Bonfanti’s powerful drum fills providing a perfect backdrop for Carmen’s vocals and the band’s backing harmonies.
Go All The Way
Bryson’s original “Last Dance” showcases both his underrated songwriting skills as well as his elegant fretwork. It should come as no surprise that a bunch of Beatles fans like the Raspberries would pluck more than one tune from the Lennon/McCartney songbook. The band acquits itself nicely as “Fab Four” sound-alikes on “No Reply,” falling somewhere on the spectrum between Klaatu and Badfinger, while their cover of “Ticket To Ride” is beefier than the original, with deliberate drumbeats and a solid rhythmic backbone on which the vocals ride, with flashes of brilliant guitar punctuating the arrangement. The album’s only other cover song, of the Choir’s 1966 garage-rock hit “It’s Cold Outside,” is delivered reverently but with appropriate zeal, offering jangling instrumentation and expressive gang vocals that perfectly capture the innocence of the era.
The other two unsuccessful singles from the Side 3 album (the first being the aforementioned “Tonight)” – “Ecstasy” and “I’m A Rocker” – are a pair of pure pop gems. The former offers the band’s trademark melodic sonic bluster, with an epic sound not unlike “Go All The Way” or “I Wanna Be With You,” featuring soaring vocals and rolling drumbeats, while the latter is more of a Stonesy blooze grind with Bryson’s deliciously greasy guitar licks and a foot-shuffling rhythmic track. Pop Art Live closes, of course, with “Go All The Way,” the band’s performance of their best-known song living up to the audience’s expectations, its yin/yang creative dynamic balanced by Carmen’s lofty vocals and Bryson’s raucous fretwork.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Fans of the Raspberries waited nearly 30 years for the band’s 2004 reunion show, and have suffered through almost another decade and a half waiting for the concert to receive a legit CD release. The band sounds mighty good for a bunch of aging duffers, picking up pretty much where they left off in 1975 and delivering a high-octane performance for those of us who never got to witness the band in person back in the day.
The closest most of us have come to hearing the Raspberries perform live was a 1974 bootleg album (Back Home Again) that framed the band in a more rock-oriented light with blues overtones (Omnivore, why don’t you track that disc down and reissue it?). Short of inventing a time machine and traveling back to the early ‘70s and Cleveland’s Agora club, Pop Art Live provides all the cheap thrills a fan could ask for from power-pop pioneers the Raspberries. Grade: B+ (Omnivore Recordings, released August 18, 2017)
Buy the CD from Amazon.com: The Raspberries’ Pop Art Live