By the time he got the Rascals to agree to a reunion after 30 years of trying, Little Steven felt the situation called for something more prestigious than a straight nostalgia tour. The Rascals were his childhood heroes, after all, and all four original members — Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli and Gene Cornish — were on board for their first tour since 1970.
As the E Street Band guitarist explained to the Republic, “They wouldn’t have done it just to do the oldies circuit, you know what I mean. So I needed to create a more artistic reason than nostalgia.”
So he wrote a show around it, calling in Marc Brickman, who’d worked with Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd, to help him produce and direct a multimedia extravaganza titled “Once Upon a Dream Starring the Rascals.”
The tour hit Phoenix Monday night, Oct. 14, for the first of five performances at the Orpheum Theatre. The classic lineup has been fleshed out for the tour with the addition of a bassist, a second keyboardist handling a lot of the orchestration and three backup singers who definitely underscored the gospel-flavored soul side of the Rascals’ sound.
But that was just the music. The production also featured a historic Rascals narrative stitched together from archival footage, narration by “Sopranos” star Vincent Pastore, a Little Steven introduction, interviews with all four members and dramatic film segments with actors portraying the Rascals as kids and young adults.
For all the bells and whistles, though — and the fact that the narrative does place everything in context while sharing the most compelling aspects of the Rascals’ story and building to a life-affirming climax about the optimistic ideals of the ’60s dream — the thing that really stood out Monday at the Orpheum was the performance.
These guys brought their A-game after sitting out four decades worth of rock, whether working their way through such spirited R&B covers as the Larry Williams classic “Slow Down,” the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey” and their chart-topping version “Good Lovin’” or the more experimental psychedelic turn the show took after intermission. And the backing vocals helped a lot, but all four members more than held their own, with Cornish as the major revelation of the night. Most people, when they talk about the Rascals, tend to focus on the Hammond B-3 organ work of Felix Cavielere, the drumming of Dino Danelli, a man both Little Steven and Danny Zelisko, on separate occasions in the past few weeks, have called the greatest drummer in the history of rock and roll, and the fact that they have two great singers — Cavielere and Eddie Brigati — trading off lead vocals. But Cornish tore it up. Repeatedly.
After setting the tone with a comic recording of Little Steven welcoming fans to the show, the curtain fell and the Rascals launched into the 1967 hit “It’s Wonderful,” psychedelic projections enhancing the mood. “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” was even better, fueled by Cavielere’s soulful vocal, and they followed through “What is the Reason” and a hard-rocking “You Better Run” before seguing into their early days as an R&B cover band via “Carry Me Back,” with its lyrical cue “I’m going back where I come from.” And then, they loosely followed their career trajectory a bit through such obvious highlights as “Baby Let’s Wait,” “If You Knew” (which featured Cornish on acoustic), a very funky “Hold On,” the Brigati-led performance of their debut single, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat My Heart Out Anymore” and a climactic set-ending performance of “Good Lovin’.”
The second set started off strong with the one-two punch of “Love is a Beautiful Thing” and “Groovin’” (with Cornish on harmonica) before exploring the more psychedelic and at times experimental aspects of their legacy as the peace and love theme began to emerge. “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” “A Girl Like You” and “How Can I Be Sure” all sounded great. But the entire set, including the narrative, seemed to be building to “People Got to Be Free,” a rousing performance that sounded as much like a spirited call to arms in 2013 as it did at the time. The finale was steeped in a sense of nostalgia for the ’60s with the narrative saying, “We were the love generation. We almost got there. We just ran out of time.” The message of the show, it seems, is that there is still time if people still believe. As John Lennon would say, “War is over! If you want it.”
Details on remaining dates: Wednesday, Oct. 16; Friday, Oct. 18 and Saturday, Oct. 19. 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20. Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St., Phoenix. $62-$253. 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com, rascalsdream.com.