Time never stops playing tricks with your mind. The Five Emprees' first reunion show in four years seemed so far away when details of it were announced in late July, and tickets went on sale during the first week in August.
Bit by bit, though, the clock began ticking more loudly, as updates about the pace of ticket sales began appearing on the Five Emprees' Facebook page, with one message being quickly, and urgently, driven home – don't wait.
That message reached a fever pitch on August 28: “As of yesterday, tickets were almost completely sold out. For those of you who want to go and are planning to get tickets at the door, you might want to rethink that plan and get them NOW.”
The countdown toward the final week has whizzed by, in a blur, toward tonight's result: the band has sold out Hidden Pointe, which holds 500 people. It's an amazing outcome, considering how much time has passed since the band first called it a day in the early '70s.
“Fifty years later, and they can still pull a crowd,” Don marvels. “How many local bands can say that?” “Not many, I wager,” I respond.
Sadly, however, longtime bassist Ron Pelkey isn't here tonight, for reasons that become clearer after a dramatic announcement between sets. He and his wife, we learn, are both in assisted living care, which means that any future reunions will likely go on without him. (The first one happened in 1988, at Babe's Lounge, in downtown Benton Harbor.)
Steve Phillips, who replaced Pelkey when his predecessor quit the band, to attend college – ably covers the bottom end basics, leaving vocalist/guitarist Don Cook, guitarist Tony Catanaia, and keyboardist Bill Schueneman as the other remaining original members to carry the flag. Drummer Bill Winans fills in for Mike Derose, who left music long ago to become an architect, while Cook's wife, Debbie, and Terry Vandenberg provide additional vocals.
Guess what, though? The band is as potent as ever, and doesn't skimp on pulling out all the stops, as Catanaia's crisp leads and Schueneman's synthesizer and piano blasts make clear on well-worn '60s rockers like “You Really Got Me” (The Kinks), “Kicks” (Paul Revere & The Raiders), and a giddy romp through The Beatles' “Back In The USSR,” where Rick Pirri joins for a one-off cameo on bass.
It's one of many spontaneous moments that pop up during these shows, and help to make them so fun, and memorable. Ditto for a second set coupling of “Sugar Shack” and “Sugar Sugar,” which is truly inspired, and helps to keep the dance floor humming.
Another surprise comes when the band breaks into “Eye Into The Sky,” by the Alan Parsons Project – which seems at odds with the overall emphasis on the '60s. Yet, on another level, it's not a stretch at all, because it allows the band to showcase its harmonies – another quality that set the Emprees apart back in the day, along with their R&B influences.
Debbie Cook's vocals prove relevant in this regard, enabling the Emprees to expand their sound. She steps up to the mike to belt out girl group and soul staples like “Be My Baby,” and “Lady Marmalade,” respectively, with able support from Vandenberg. Her voice also shines through on pop nuggets like the Turtles' “Eleanor,” a mainstay of recent reunion shows, and “The Air That I Breathe” (The Hollies).
Catanaia also proves himself a capable singer throughout the night, as he demonstrates on a swooning version of Sam Cooke's classic, “You Send Me” – not exactly a choice for a novice to tackle, especially if you're trying to fill those particular shoes. But the band pulls it off, with all the panache you'd expect of seasoned veterans, who also make sure to inject plenty of their own, highly individual styles into the equation.
As ever, eclecticism is the name of the game. How many average bar bands could swing from the likes of “Fun, Fun, Fun” (The Beach Boys), to “Sweet Caroline” (The Beach Boys), and “You Don't Have to Say You Love Me” (Dusty Springfield)? The Five Emprees manage, without missing a beat, making them like a natural fit alongside their classic debut single, “Little Miss Sad” – the only song that gets a repeat airing, in both sets, yet inspires an all-out romp along the dance floor.
What makes these shows all the more remarkable is that Cook is the only member who lives in the local area fulltime anymore. Catania divides his time between South Haven, while Phillips lives in Florida; Schueneman, in Georgia; and Winans, in Kalamazoo. (Pelkey until his recent health issues, also came from Georgia, to do his part.)
These sorts of logistics complicate the rehearsal picture, to put it mildly, so it's not surprising that the odd rough spots creep in here or there – at one point, Cook has to redirect his cohorts on one of the soul numbers into an ending that clearly isn't planned, for instance.
For the most part, though, both sets flow seamlessly toward the one-two punch ending of “Little Miss Sad,” and the Abbey Road medley – another longtime staple of past reunions. That pairing primes the crowd for the lone encore, a fun romp through “The Letter.” This time, however, we're being treated to the funkier, grittier Joe Cocker version, instead of the Boxtops' breezily familiar soul/pop original.
It's another reminder of the band's ability to put its own spin on what we've been hearing all along, and there's no sign of the interest letting up, judging by the fervency of the response – as well as the odd bit of banter that bounces back and forth.
“I'm old. Older than most of you!” Cook jokes, before the second run through “Little Miss Sad,” until someone in the audience suggests otherwise. “You're 78?” The singer asks. “I'm glad to hear that! I'm sick of being the oldest!”
Speculation had been rife, going into Sunday's show, that this affair might mark the Five Emprees' “last dance,” hence – the sellout. I'm not so sure about that, myself. That kind of talk has floated around for a long time, as I discovered in going through my archives, such as a 2015 preview I wrote about the 50th anniversary show at Hidden Pointe, for the Herald-Palladium: “Whether any more reunions happen is still uncertain.”
So much for predictions, right? But in a sense, it doesn't matter. Time will tell if Sunday's show marks the final exclamation point on a long-standing tradition, but based on what Don and I witnessed, there's no doubting this much – they'll be talking about this night for a long, long time.