Reunions are a tricky thing. Often, they wind up being half baked affairs, devoid of any magic and padded with disappointment. However, when quintessential power pop avatars, the Raspberries—Eric Carmen, Wally Bryson, Dave Smalley and Jim Bonfanti—reunited in 2004 to perform their first live show in over three decades, they pulled off the impossible and exceeded the lofty expectations of their loyal global fan base, garnering rave reviews in Billboard and Entertainment Weekly.
Live On Sunset Strip is the Raspberries' first new record in over 30 years. Recorded at the band's final show of the reunion tour at L.A.'s House of Blues on October 21, 2005, it's an explosive tour-de-force that captures electrifying renditions of such Raspberries gems, "Go All The Way," "I Wanna Be With You," "Let's Pretend," "Tonight, "Ecstasy," "Last Dance," "Hard To Get Over A Heartbreak" and "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)" among others.
Featuring liner notes penned by Bruce Springsteen, a self avowed Raspberries fan, the package also comes with complete song lyrics and showcases a previously unpublished 1974 photo of a little known Liverpudlian musician named John Lennon decked out in sartorial splendor, wearing a Raspberries sweatshirt.
So how did this unlikeliest of reunions come to fruition?
After a mooted Raspberries reunion fell apart in 2000, fans wishing for a reunion of the Cleveland based power pop legends were not hopeful. In fact, they were pretty damn depressed. Flash forward four years later…when an unexpected phone call to Raspberries drummer Jim Bonfanti set the reunion in motion. The call came from Anthony Nicolaidis, a booking agent for Cleveland's House of Blues who proposed that the group reunite for the grand opening of the club. Somehow the timing was right and the Raspberries regrouped in the fall of 2004 in preparation for a one-off show at the new venue.
Band frontman Eric Carmen was confident that the group would not disappoint their hardcore fans.
"There was no way I ever wanted to go on a stage and have someone walk away and say they were just okay. We had to be great. There's that saying, 'failure is not an option.' That was kind of our motto from the very beginning. I think I always knew that the band could deliver. It was just a matter of focus, getting everybody back into playing. Wally (Bryson) has been playing guitar the whole time since the band broke up. It's not like he ever stopped playing. Jim (Bonfanti) had been playing drums a bit. Dave (Smalley) and I might have been the two rustiest ones. But once we started to play together it was like 'yeah, this is gonna work.' The biggest challenge was starting from scratch and relearning 26, 27 songs. We wanted to live up to our legacy."
In order to capture the nuances, dynamics and complexities inherent in the Raspberries musical canon, the band augmented their live shows with three additional musicians, guitarist Billy Sullivan, multi-instrumentalist Paul Sidoti and backing vocalist Jennifer Lee. Eric Carmen explains the addition of the trio christened as "The Overdubs."
"When I went to see Bruce Springsteen a few years ago, I looked up at the stage and didn't see just three or four guys. There were lots of people up there, including three or four guys playing guitar, a female singer, various musicians playing percussion and keyboards. I remember thinking if we were ever going to do something on stage again that's the way we should do it. We'd get the chance to play all the parts that were played on the records, but couldn't be accomplished on stage with just four people."
Reconvening for three months of intensive rehearsals at the former site of The Utopia, a Willoughby, Ohio club that the band regularly played in the early 70's, hour after hour, the Raspberries painstakingly dissected their songs, remaining dedicated to reproducing the music in the most authentic manner possible. In preparation for the reunion show, Carmen stressed that he consciously avoided listening to any Raspberries records.
"I wanted to come at them fresh and not be locked into parts we played 30 years ago. I thought, 'What can we bring to this to make this better now?' because we know more than we did 30 years ago."
Kicking off with a dynamic 12-string powered jangle-rock rendition of their 1973 hit, "I Wanna Be With You," on November 26, 2004, the Raspberries delivered a terrific show, generously drawing from the band's four acclaimed albums—Raspberries, Fresh, Side 3 and Starting Over.
Fans from around the globe including Japan, England, and the Netherlands converged to witness this historic reunion. "It was just mind boggling," recalls Carmen.
"When I talked to the Cleveland House of Blues people about our first show and they told me that fifty percent of the tickets were sold to out of towners, I said, 'What do you mean?' (laughs) Half of the people at our first reunion show came from somewhere else. They weren't natives. That was pretty astonishing. We have some very special and devoted fans who've followed this band and stayed with us all this time."
Two and a half hours later, as the climactic final chords of their smash hit, "Go All The Way" echoed throughout the halls of the newly christened venue, the verdict was in, the Raspberries delivered the show of a lifetime.
For Carmen, the band's first reunion show was "pretty amazing. I remember having my back to the audience on that stage before the curtain opened and I felt like we were four guys in a trench in a war about to get shelled. It wasn't really stage fright. I don't get stage fright. In fact, I'm more comfortable up on stage that just about anywhere else. It's just that there's a certain adrenaline rush right before you hit that first chord and that was really there for everybody. We all did a little handshake as we walked on stage behind the curtain. Someone might have said, 'Go get 'em, boys.' From the reaction of the audience, I guess we did. After the show I was completely exhausted. In fact, I don't know when I've ever been so exhausted—just emotionally drained. It was just about as much fun as I have ever had up on a stage."
Garnering raves from press and fans alike, the band's triumphant reunion show went so well that this one-off reunion was extended into a 10-date national trek dropping anchor in such locales as New York City, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles.
"One thing I think we prove on stage is that the Raspberries reunion is not an oldies show. We play them like we would have if we were 23, where every song is full tilt. We're going for it! I don't think any of us has any desire to do anything less. I think it's really a testimony to the songwriting more than anything. There are a lot of acts that can go back and play their hits but it sounds dated. I think our songs were good enough that they hold up. There's also an energy that's created when you have a good band. When you put John Lennon and Paul McCartney together, or Robert Plant and Jimmy Page—and I'm not comparing us to them—but there's a certain energy to this band that creates something similar. Putting the strength of Wally (Bryson) and me and Jim (Bonfanti) and Dave (Smalley) together is magic."
While on the road, the Raspberries were pleasantly surprised to hear that Bruce Springsteen, also out on tour, was regularly championing their praises to his audiences. A sample shout out from "The Boss" at a solo show on August 7, 2005 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
"The Raspberries had all those great hits and they made this one record, 'Overnight Sensation.' It's one of the best little pop symphonies you'll ever hear. Go out and download—but pay for it. (laughs) Get 'Overnight Sensation' by the Raspberries when you go home. You won't be disappointed."
Winding up their tour at L.A.'s House of Blues on October 21, 2005, the band enlisted the talents of noted engineer, Mark Linett, renowned for his work on Brian Wilson's Grammy nominated release, Smile, to capture the show for posterity. Co-produced by Linett and Carmen, Live On Sunset Strip deftly captures the excitement and incandescent energy witnessed by the lucky concertgoers crammed inside the venue.
Working alongside Linett proved to be a pleasurable experience for Carmen. "Mark is sonically brilliant. I wasn't really worried about, 'Gee, is he gonna have the right bass sound?' After listening to Smile and his work on the remastered 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds, which was just spectacular. There was no question that Mark knew what he was doing on the engineering side of things. The real key to me was making sure the record was exciting."
Lauded by USA Today ("like manna from rock 'n' roll heaven") and Billboard ("these guys can still sing their hearts out and play their asses off"), the new CD crackles with explosive energy, transporting the listener back to that memorable night when Eric, Wally, Dave and Jim rocked Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Listening to Live On Sunset Strip, one is struck by the formidable vocal and instrumental firepower percolating through the grooves, which begs the question, are the Raspberries a better live band today than in the 70's?
"I think we're definitely a better live band today," attests Carmen. "First and foremost, the technology we have now is so much better. When we walk onstage at any House of Blues we are immediately dealing with a better sound system than we ever played on with the Raspberries back in the 70's. That helps enormously. Secondly, I think there's just sort of a maturity that each musician in the band has achieved over 30 years. We've all grown up, we understand things better now. As an arranger I know a whole lot more now than I did in 1973 about what works and what won't work."
Two versions of Live On Sunset Strip have been issued by Rykodisc, a 13-track greatest hits collection and a deluxe 2-CD, 21 song package that comes with a bonus 5 song DVD filmed at L.A.'s House of Blues. But for hardcore fans, the band has something extra special up their sleeves. Available exclusively through the group's web site, (www.raspberriesonline.com) is a limited edition package crammed with tons of extras including a DVD of the full 21 song show, a candid documentary culling fly-on-the wall rehearsal, soundcheck and backstage footage, fan testimonials plus a clip of "I Wanna Be With You" taped at the first reunion show in November of 2004. Also included is the group's 2005 live reworking of The Choir's mid-60's regional hit, "It's Cold Outside", previously unseen interviews taped for the band's Hanging With Raspberries VH1 TV special, audio of a 1973 live show taped for Armed Forces radio in Frankfurt, Germany, and much more.
"It's a pretty great package," enthuses Carmen. "It's got all sorts of interesting stuff that is not available on the Ryko versions. There's home movies that Jim shot all throughout Europe in 1972 and '73 and some Side 3 studio footage, which is interspersed with some of the Capitol promo films that we did. It also includes the original demos that Jim, Wally and I recorded before the band was signed to Capitol, 'Please Let Me Come Back Home' and 'Oh Tonight.' We did them in a little studio in Cleveland above The Agora. The demos eventually found their way to (future Raspberries producer) Jimmy Ienner, which brought him to Cleveland to come hear us for the first time."
Carmen, who enjoyed success as a solo artist in the 70's and 80's with such hits as "All By Myself," "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again," "Hungry Eyes" and "Make Me Lose Control," seems happy to be back in a band again.
"Being in a band is what I always wanted to do. I never really had any desire to be a solo artist and I found being a solo artist a very lonely existence. That camaraderie of being part of a unit, when you walk onstage each night it's not just one person up there whose life and career depends on how you do. There are four of you. That's a very big thing. The other thing about being in a band is it comes with a set of limitations because each musician is good at some things and maybe not as good at something else. But those limitations are also very freeing as a writer. One of the toughest things as a songwriter is when you're writing with a completely blank canvas you can go in any direction. Having some direction knowing that you've got these four musicians including yourself that you're writing for, those limitations become good directions. If you've got a drummer that plays like Jim Bonfanti, it's very easy to think about what I should be writing. Or a guitar player that plays like Wally Bryson. It helps set you on a course and in a good way it limits where you're thinking as a writer.
"Here's one thing. Raspberries songs were written for the Raspberries. Some songwriters just write songs. I always wrote very specifically to play to the strengths of the guys I was playing with. In the case of the Raspberries, it was Wally, Dave and Jim. I was really writing and conceiving songs thinking about Wally's guitar playing, thinking about Dave's bass playing, thinking about Jim's style of drumming, and trying to write things that were right down their alley so that they could really nail 'em. To put this band back together and have Wally standing there on my left doing those guitar parts that I haven't listened to or played since 1973 was great!"
Back in the 70's, the Raspberries were dogged by critics who charged that the group were either way ahead of their time or Sixties throwbacks. Now in 2007, it seems time has finally caught up with the Raspberries and their brand of explosive power pop. Today the group is universally lauded as architects of the power pop genre, with contemporary acts like Fountains Of Wayne, Paul Westerberg and Rooney paying homage to their joyous sound. Carmen is flattered by the band's continued influence on a new generation of power poppers.
"It was so refreshing hearing 'Stacy's Mom' on the radio, a breath of fresh air. I love Fountains Of Wayne and groups like that. We never really saw ourselves as architects of anything, though. We just wrote and played the music we wanted to hear."
The Raspberries were never concerned with sounding "too pop". They were more than comfortable in their own musical skin. Now that the group has released their first new album in over three decades, is there any talk about doing a new studio record?
"I've thought about it but I don't think we're there yet," says Carmen. "The music business is in such an odd place right now that we're gonna have to see how a little bit of this shakes out. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. The big question is how do you make sure you get it out to people now that the big label paradigm is pretty much over?"
And while the music industry is indeed in a precarious state of panic and turmoil, one thing is certain, music fans from all corners of the globe are in ecstatic that Cleveland's seminal power pop practitioners are back and better than ever.