After a week of contemporary “country” music from Thompson Square, the Alive at Five concert series got back to its theme for 2011 – presenting the former lead singers of once-upon-a-time hitmakers. Burton Cummings was, of course, the lead singer, co-writer and keyboardist on nearly all of the biggest hits by ’60s-’70s Canadian rockers the Guess Who.
He was backed by a competent if undistinguished five-piece band that pumped out pretty straight-forward re-creations of those hits. And, I’ve got to admit, there were a whole lot of them – from the opening romp through “No Sugar Tonight” to the rambunctious closer “No Time.” In between, Cummings & Co. dished out “Laughing,” “Clap for the Wolfman,” the Beatles-esque “Hand Me Down World” and the big ballad “These Eyes.”
He picked up a flute for the jazz-tinged “Undun” (“What are you cheering for?,” he asked as he stepped up to the mic with flute in hand. “You think we’re gonna do a Jethro Tull medley?”). And blew some down ‘n’ dirty blues harp on the boogie-rocker “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” and the “Now That the Roast Beef’s Gone” intro to “American Woman.”
But although Cummings once possessed a mighty howl that earned him comparisons to Robert Plant (by AllMusic.com) and Jim Morrison (no less an authority than the legendary Lester Bangs), on Thursday, his voice was a decidedly nasal whine. And he seemed much more comfortable on the mellower, more melodic tunes like “These Eyes” and the throw-away joke-song “Rollaway” than he was on the rockers.
And there is obviously no love lost between Cummings and the current incarnation of the Guess Who (featuring original drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale). Throughout his show, Cummings repeated ragged on his former bandmates. “It’s great to be back in the U.S. singing my own songs – that I wrote,” he declared after “New Mother Nature,” only the second song of the show. “Beware! Don’t ever settle for that fake band again.” Later, he referred to 2011 Guess Who as “that traveling karaoke circus that’s out there.”
But Cummings is to be commended for giving the audience what it wanted. “We don’t want to shove a lot of stuff down your throat that you haven’t heard,” he admitted, and he stuck to the Guess Who hits and album tracks except for the anthemic “Stand Tall” (a bonafide Top 10 solo hit for him back in 1977), the title track of his latest solo album “Above the Ground” and the brief novelty song “Rollaway.”
Of course, when he pulled out “Louie, Louie” as his encore, I think we all knew it was time to leave…
Sly Fox and his band the Hustlers opened the evening with some muscular R&B-funk-rock classics from the songbags of Muddy Waters and James Brown. At the microphone, Sly Fox fired up Hendrix’s “Stone Free,” while back-up vocalist Donna Tritico stepped up into the spotlight for a sizzling version of “Knock On Wood.” They wrapped up their hour-long set with their radio hit “SUNY Girl” and “Red Dress,” a slab of party-time funk-rock that proves that the band’s original material has got plenty of potential.
BURTON CUMMINGS SET LIST
No Sugar Tonight
New Mother Nature
Clap for the Wolfman
Guns Guns Guns
Above the Ground
Hand Me Down World
Runnin Back to Saskatoon
Now That the Roast Beef’s Gone>Roadhouse Blues (the Doors)>American Woman
Louie, Louie (The Kingsmen)
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