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Lew Bundles

Raspberries Carnegie Hall Review

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This Day in Rock History (The Raspberries Play Carnegie Hall)

September 26, 1973—In perhaps the highlight of their career—a moment that would pass all too quickly—the quintessential Seventies power pop group The Raspberries made their New York City debut at Carnegie Hall.

Ah, The Raspberries! They have been the subjects of one of those before-and-after arguments that periodically divide devotees of Seventies rock ‘n’ roll like myself. Specifically, was Eric Carmen better as a solo artist (“All by Myself,” “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”) sometimes given over to emotional weepies, or as part of the tougher Raspberries, where his bandmates could keep his lyrical side in check? (Similar battles have raged over whether Grand Funk Railroad was better before or after producer Jimmy Ienner, or whether Bruce Springsteen’s best work came before or after Darkness on the Edge of Town.)

I came of musical age during Carmen’s solo career, but after repeated listening to his work over the years, I’m now more inclined to lean toward his output with this quartet that never really got its due until it was too late.

The group from Cleveland had waited several years for its big New York show, and had been bitterly disappointed when a 1972 backup tour gig with the Hollies had fallen through. Now Eric Carmen, Wally Bryson, Jim Bonfanti, and Dave Smalley made the most of the opportunity in front of a standing-room only crowd.

You want to know what makes me chuckle about this show? The boys started with some chords from The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” before ripping into their high-energy hymn to teenage lust, “I Wanna Be With You.”

What made that move so unusual was that a number of critics had taken them to task for what was seen as overly heavy indebtedness to the Fab Four, a perception undoubtedly enhanced in their early days by management’s decision to put them in matching outfits, just like the Liverpool moptops. (See what I mean in the photo accompanying this post.)

This time, in the same performance venue that had launched The Beatles’ invasion of America in earnest in February 1964, Carmen and Co. were, in effect, giving the finger to the critical powers that be by invoking the memory of the British musicians that had transformed their lives.

It didn’t matter—their fans loved it, as hit after hit from their first three albums came from the group, including “Go All the Way,” “Let’s Pretend,” and “Ecstasy.”

It all ended so soon afterward. Smalley and Bonfanti left the group by the end of the year. Though the LP that Carmen and Bryson made with two replacements, Starting Over, won critical acclaim (particularly for what might have been the group’s production masterpiece, “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record”), the sales just weren’t there, and it all ended up messily in a parking lot brawl. From then on “it was Ricky and the Tooth,” Carmen noted in “No Hard Feelings” (“The Tooth” being producer Ienner, who went on to make Carmen’s first solo album).

Among rock ‘n’ roll musicians, Carmen might have the greatest affinity for my literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, as witnessed by the fact that two of his song titles were inspired by The Great Gatsby author: “Winter Dreams” and “Boats Against the Current.” It is ironic, then, that in the last five years, Carmen’s career disproved Fitzgerald’s observation that “There are no second acts in American lives.”

In 2005, after 30 years of going solo, Carmen reunited with Bryson, Bonfanti and Smalley in what was originally supposed to be a one-shot gig at Cleveland’s House of Blues but that soon ended up creating a small concert tour. The affection that had belatedly welled up for the group over the years was best illustrated by one of their greatest admirers, Bruce Springsteen, who referred to these fine musicians three different times in his summer 2005 concert tour. 

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