The Guess Who and Chuck Negron at Grand Casino, 4/9/11
What to expect of a performance by two of the greatest soul and blues-infused rock bands of the '60s and '70s, who are now performing in the first case as a singer without his original band, and in the second, with a new singer entirely, only the founding bassist remaining?
This was the case when Canadian rock band the Guess Who played at Grand Casino Mille Lacs Saturday night, Three Dog Night's Chuck Negron the warm-up act. The Guess Who have undergone numerous transformations since their inception in the mid-'60s, with singer Burton Cummings moving on to form a successful solo career, and guitarist Randy Bachman stepping out to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Now remaining are founding drummer Garry Peterson (out sick Saturday night) and bassist Jim Kale, who following the band's 1975 dissolution had the foresight to register the name the Guess Who as a legal corporation, something virtually unheard of at the time. Chuck Negron performed simply as Chuck Negron, who like Cummings is still pursuing solo work while his former band, Three Dog Night, still records and performs without him.
I imagined the show might be like those 60s and 70s revival acts whose live performances today are often compiled into specials and aired during PBS member drives. "Steppenwolf, featuring John Kay." "Rod Argent's the Zombies." Classic hits as performed by the vocalist you recognize, but backed by different (and often much younger) session musicians, as said singer long ago alienated his original lineup. Or alternatively, classic hits as performed by the original instrumentalists, staged now under the familiar name but without the original vocalist, as that singer has since moved on to a successful solo career (or the bassist has somehow finagled ownership of the name). The new singer is often good, but doesn't capture the essence of the band's original incarnation. The music is always mellow, unoffensive. The audience, tame. It's somehow comforting - safe, unedgy. Just enjoy yourself! There will be no cussing, no panty-throwing, no rioting or murderous motorcycle gang security at this show. If you donate at the $85 level, you too can own the limited edition VHS "Stars of the Sixties - Performing Live One Night Only at Red Rocks."
For the most part, Chuck Negron delivered on my expectation. His short, easy-going set featured all the hits (and just the hits), with his voice straining slightly but overall showcasing the same set of pipes we remember from the '60s and '70s - it didn't seem the band had to pitch down any of the songs to accommodate an aging voice, as many acts do. When he hit some of those high notes, I worried at times his penis might burst all over again, but only because I reckon it's near impossible for me to make it through any piece on Negron without mentioning said incident.
His backing band Saturday night played all these familiar songs adeptly and in a way that complemented both Negron's voice and their familiar history, a highlight the full-size Hammond B3 organ (and kudos to the road crew for transporting that monster). It was like the PBS VHS experience. It was kind of...nice. The kind of concert-going experience where no one will notice that you clap like a white person. Where you can sing along to all the choruses and the less tricky verses without fear of reprisal, slightly swaying in your seat. "Just an old, fashioned love song..." Let's hold hands, now.
The Guess Who turned out to be an different experience entirely, defying my tame expectations. The band, featuring a number of new musicians including Canadian singer Derek Sharp, was a really talented group all-told. Sharp, who has the pipes (and hair) of Sebastian Bach, doesn't sound exactly like Cummings (of course). He doesn't have quite the same well-timed grit, though this seemed to change halfway through the set, timed perfectly with the moment when he removed his shirt. But he does have an amazing voice - I wouldn't be surprised to hear it had been professionally trained - as well as an engaging stage presence. Perhaps that grit he lacks is the sound of the voice straining to hit the high notes, which Sharp does effortlessly. Original bassist Jim Kale tackles the four strings with aplomb, and is a really fun guy to watch onstage, all silly faces and wisecracker harmonies, dropping his low notes an octave on their tail to amusing effect. I'm pretty sure it's a Canadian thing.
I've been to a lot (a lot) of casino shows. I'm way too young to have gone to so many casino shows, and I'm no spring chicken. But from my experience, I think the highest praise you can get out of a casino crowd is motivating your sedate audience out of their banquet-style seats. The Guess Who did just that only a few songs in, and with very little prodding (or outright begging, as I've sometimes witnessed).
I've also seen performances by a lot of bands out of my mother's and father's record collections. I'm always a little unsure what to expect - some musicians just don't age well. Their voices don't hold up, they don't keep up their guitar chops, the newly hired drummer has the totally wrong feel, and most importantly, no one in the band seems to care. Better case scenario, you'll end up with a band willing to put in a good effort, but who still just play bad music. Or vice versa: good music, bad attitude.
Whatever disappointment I always find myself experiencing in not seeing the "original lineup" aside - and why should that matter anyway? - these guys put on one of the best revival performances I've ever seen. High energy, great attitude, top-notch performing, and above all, it seemed like everyone truly wanted to be there, that they still cared. And the result? Their energy and sound could have filled a space the size of the Xcel. They toe the line between that "cool" rock disinterest that seems so integral to rock credibility or that mellowed out, often boring sound that appeals to an older casino crowd, and being a little too cheesy and over-the-top, shirts off, tones throwing back to the very best of 80s hair metal. The Guess Who inexplicably rode that line perfectly, adding a totally viable update to an old sound.
While Negron may have confirmed my expectations for a totally tame night, while Guess Who may have defied them, both angles worked just fine for me and for the audience.
Critic's bias: Guess Who's a big Three Dog Night fan? This gal. And this gal likes the Guess Who even more.
The crowd: The usual for a casino, including a woman who sat with her arms crossed, disapproving smirk on her face through the entirety of "Mama Told Me Not to Come." White-haired and in a pastel sweater, she was probably old enough to have been Chuck's (or songwriter Randy Newman's) mama. This Mama, who told not to go, did manage to clap along during "Joy to the World." It was, after all, a song she probably once upon a time taught little kids in Sunday school. That's not the way to have fun, Mama!
Overheard in the crowd: During Chuck Negron - Audience: "Mama Told Me Not to Come!" Negron: "I'm sure she did." During the Guess Who - Sharp: "It's good to be back in Minnesota, eh?" The crowd, replying in unison: "Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" (Weirdest thing I've ever experienced at a show.)
Random Notebook Dump: "Mama Told Me Not to Come" - here they shined, miming with his hands, the keys sounding every bit as weird, basement drug den as on the original.
For more photos: See the full slideshow here.
Chuck Negron: Shambala/Liar/An Old Fashioned Love Song/Never Been to Spain/One Man Band/Mama Told Me Not to Come/Easy to Be Hard/One/Joy to the World
The Guess Who: Bus Rider/Clap for the Wolfman/Laughing/She's Come Undone/No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature/Shaking All Over/Hand Me Down World/Share the Land/American Woman/These Eyes/No Time