July 31, 2007

Album Review

The Raspberries' history was a study in joy mixed with frustration -- a well-nigh perfect power pop band that, through a combination of bad timing, record label lethargy, and personnel and personality conflicts, never quite lived up to its commercial promise, leaving behind three great albums and a fourth that was not as good, for a total of about three-dozen stunningly worthwhile songs. And one thing that they never did at the time was a live album, this despite the sterling accounts of their concerts, which were borne out in some of their surviving television clips. The ex-members must have looked on with astonishment as the band started getting written about as one of the most lamented losses of the 1970s, and their albums (especially the first three) soared in value on the collectors' market. Musical and personal differences, coupled with singer/principal composer Eric Carmen's successful post-band pop career, all conspired to rule out any kind of serious reunion until the end of the 1990s, and then that was delayed a while longer. It ultimately took until 2007 -- from a 2005 gig at the House of Blues in Los Angeles -- to get this long-awaited document of the group in concert released to the public. The tendency toward unbridled enthusiasm among fans might be somewhat tempered by the fact that a lot of latter-day reunions of this type don't amount to much more than the bandmembers going through the motions of impersonating their youth. But in this case the right participants are here: Jim Bonfanti on drums, Wally Bryson on lead guitar, and Dave Smalley on bass joining Carmen (playing rhythm guitar and some piano) with a minimum of the usual extra help you often see in shows like this -- one female harmony singer and a very unobtrusive keyboard man -- but the core of the sound and all of the leads are the quartet's work.
The voices may have darkened in tone ever so slightly, but these guys can still sing their hearts out and play their asses off (and that goes double for Bonfanti on the drums), and whether it's "I Wanna Be with You," "Tonight," "Nobody Knows," or any of the other band originals that they must have played a thousand times, or renditions of the Who's "I Can't Explain" or the Searchers hit "Needles and Pins," they sound like they're putting 102 percent into it. The harmonies are all there, with no studio retraces or overdubs that are obvious, and everyone gets represented well -- the crowd can heard chanting "Wally Bryson" at one point, and he and Dave Smalley get their songs in; indeed, Smalley's "Should I Wait" and Bryson's "Come Around and See Me" and "Last Dance" are all unexpected highlights of a set that is pretty much filled with great moments. The only place where the band fails in what it does is on the harder-rocking numbers such as "Party's Over"; an artifact from their flawed fourth album, in which they tried to toughen up their sound, this and one or two other numbers show the Raspberries trying to be a hard rock band, something they never really were very good at. But those lapses don't detract from the overall value of the 21-song double-CD set. It would be wonderful if, say, a professionally recorded 1971-vintage Raspberries live show were to surface someday, but it's unlikely that such a live recording would capture the playing as well as this double-CD set does, the power and impact of the bass as well as the two guitars, Bonfanti's drumming, and those still-superb harmonies. Live on Sunset Strip is accompanied by a booklet that's mostly devoted to song lyrics, and therein was found the set's only flaw: small stray ink blotches over some of the words. [The deluxe version of this album features a bonus five-song DVD of live performances from the same show that comprised the audio release -- here Eric Carmen is very much the focus, as the five songs featured are all written and sung by him, but the producers do their best to give Bryson and Smalley some good moments on camera. Bryson handles that double-necked guitar as if he were born with it; Smalley is an intense figure on the bass, breaking that stoicism when he throws in his harmony singing; and Jim Bonfanti looks like he's enjoying it all behind the drum kit. The only complaint is that one wishes the whole set had been released on DVD.]
Bruce Eder, Rovi

Track Listing

  1. I Wanna Be with You
  2. I Can't Explain
  3. Play On
  4. Tonight
  5. Should I Wait
  6. Nobody Knows
  7. Makin' It Easy
  8. Come Around and See Me
  9. If You Change Your Mind
  10. Let's Pretend
  11. Last Dance
  12. Needles and Pins
  13. I Can Remember
  14. Party's Over
  15. Don't Want to Say Goodbye
  16. Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)
  17. Hard to Get Over a Heartbreak
  18. I Don't Know What I Want
  19. Ecstasy
  20. I'm a Rocker
  21. Go All the Way
  22. I Wanna Be with You [DVD]
  23. Tonight [DVD]
  24. Overnight Sensation (Hit Record) [DVD]
  25. Ecstasy [DVD]
  26. Go All the Way [DVD]