This time, I vow, I'm coming prepared. No half measures allowed.
That's what I told myself, anyway, after learning the date of the latest Five Emprees reunion show, which started almost 15 years ago as a crisp fall pleasure, at Lake Michigan College, and is now firmly anchored down after the Fourth of July, at Hidden Pointe. You mark it on your calendar with pleasure, like a dinner date with those old friends who aren't always on time, but always a pleasure to see.
I couldn't make last year's reunion, because I was out on the East Coast, on a book tour promoting We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher & The Last Stand Of A Band That Mattered, with my co-author and good friend, Mark Andersen. There went 2018. I couldn't make it the year before, either, due to a power window repair that ate nearly all my disposable money, leaving me feeling pressed and squeezed like a grape, peeled like a lemon running right off the blender. There went 2017.
So this year, I made a few careful advance preparations. I set money aside, and put off whatever tedious life exercises don't need to get funded right away. I charged my camera battery all night, to avoid a repeat of my Shadowland Ballroom experience in 2010, when the damn thing packed up (after only 13 shots). I made sure I didn't have to cover an event that day, so I wouldn't show up exhausted and sweaty, having dashed off whatever story I needed to dash off.
The first strains sound reassuring enough, as my wife, Lisa, and I pull into the parking lot, and head inside. It's a rousing version of "Time Won't Let Me," by The Outsiders (the Cleveland variety, not the Dutch one, though they're both fine '60s bands), and the chorus ("Time won't let me -- waaa-aaa-aaa-aaait that long!") certainly seems like a fitting reminder of these last couple reunion-less years that I've endured. But hey, what's past is past, right? We're here now, and that's what matters.
Lisa and I park ourselves against far right hand wall, next to a dormant poor table covered with green cloth. Doesn't look like any cutthroat corner pocket action is happening tonight, which is fine with us, since we don't want to deal with a steady stream of people -- especially since the hall seems packed to the rafters.
Which is another way of saying that the temperature inside is getting a bit steamy, though tonight's 78-degree-ish temperatures interrupt -- temporarily, at last -- several mid-80s dog days. At times, I suspect, it takes a hit on the equipment, as there are several brief pauses to deal with monitor volumes, and other technical matters, that cause singer Don Cook to crack: "I assume, at this point, that I'm singing in tune." (He is, and he does, though one imagines that the massed bank of stage lights isn't making his task any easier.)
My initial vow to avoid the crush proves a bit harder to maintain, as I make my first round of taking pictures, which finds me ducking and diving a steady stream of concertgoers, moving on and off the dance floor, as the mood strikes them. If that's not challenging enough, I'm also bobbing and weaving away from the odd Hidden Pointe employee, or videographer, for whom I quickly develop a nifty workaround: He's over here? Okay, well, I'm over there. He's heading right? Fine, I'm going left. Works for me.
Tonight's edition, as it doesn't take long to figure out, is sleeker, poppier, and more baroque overall than in past shows, as evidenced by selections like "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" (The Walker Brothers), "Bus Stop" (The Hollies), and "Elenore" (The Turtles), which allow plenty of room for Don, and wife Debbie, to flex their vocal chords, and bring out the anticipation, the yearning that underpins so many of these songs from that time period, like the latter nugget ("I really think you're groovy/Let's go out to a movie/What do you say, now, Elenore, can we?").
History does not record who led, in these situations; that's where we, as the listener, get to fill in the blanks. In any event, it's a natural fit, especially when you have two keyboardists, Bill Schueneman, and Steve Phillips, who ensure that the sound stays lush and full throughout. If you saw the 2007-08-era reunions, where the band treated us to the side-long Abbey Road medley, you'll get the memo right away.
That's not to say, the band neglects to rock out -- you can't really do that, with a guitarist like Tony Catania, or a bassist like Ron Pelkey, to push the proceedings along, as they do on a fine romp through The Beatles' "Back In The USSR." No, that side is evenly slotted into place beside the above-named examples. The band also nods to its R&B/soul roots -- a quality that sets them apart from more psych-minded brethren of the time period -- with a stab at The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," where Debbie Cook's vocals come to the fore, and the Emprees' own "Hey Lover," a song that neatly straddles those Motown tendencies with the garage rock ones (which sum up the two main strands of the Five Emprees story, musically speaking).
There are surprises, too. We get a brief trip to the '80s, via "Eye In The Sky," from the Alan Parsons Project, which gives the band a chance to showcase its collective harmony strength. Purists might suggest that a band like the Five Emprees should stick to selections from its particular time period, which ignores how that period actually played out...meaning, most local bands were working bands, ones that played the hits you knew and loved, within the teen club circuit that sprang up to service the demand. Recordings, if the principals managed them, typically required a label to fund them, serving mainly as a way to generate the next round of bookings. As Tony told me several years ago, "We're a dance band. Those are our roots, and that's what we're about."
But with this particular dance band, there's plenty of personality that shines through, which explains how they can go from their "bubbling under" classic of 1965, "Little Miss Sad," to the lengthy final workout of "Soul Sacrifice" (Santana), one that allows room for Cook to bat the congas with abandon, Pelkey to play a little guitar himself, and the drummer to give himself something, with that inevitable solo of his own -- all without blinking an eye, or missing the proverbial beat.
For many who showed up this year, I suspect, it's those ringing opening chords to "Little Miss Sad" that will probably stick longest in the old subconscious. Having seen these guys several times by now, the sheer pandemonium that it ignites, followed by the mad rush to the dance floor, never ceases to amaze ("
At the end of the day, it's all about the elemental power of those guitars and drums, and that magic combo of rhythms and chords that brings us back to whatever mood hit, when we bought a record like "Little Miss Sad" and heard it for the first time. Whatever vibe or feeling takes over, you never forget it, and you don't mind hearing it one more time, if the opportunity presents itself -- which, I suspect, is what keeps on driving these reunions. So here's to next year..