November 16, 2013 at 1:16 am

Groovin' again: The Rascals at Fox in spirited reunion

Every band that implodes in a cloud of anger, drugs and bad juju should have a Steven Van Zandt.

The Rascals did, and their super fan Van Zandt, his wife Maureen and Marc Brickman constructed a hybrid event, part Broadway show, part rock concert around them, “Once Upon a Dream.” It’s allowed the four men to feel their way back to a reunion that would never have happened otherwise.

The Rascals — Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Gene Cornish and Dino Danelli — performed “Once Upon a Dream” at the Fox Theatre on Friday, and the setup was intriguing. The band never left the stage, but in between their spirited rendition of virtually all their hits (and many deep tracks), the stage would go dark and each member would speak on tape, on a projection screen behind the stage.

There were also amusing reenactments of their narrative, particularly effective in the scenes in the recording studio in the ‘60s, when lookalike actors playing the Rascals in were being supervised by producer Tom Dowd.

Most of those who enjoyed the Rascals’ music from 1965-1970 were probably oblivious to the specific ethno-musical chemistry that went into the group’s sound. Cavaliere and Brigati came out of soul and New York street doo-wop, guitarist Cornish loved country and rockabilly, and drummer Danelli played as a youngster with big band greats.

In the early ‘60s, first Cavaliere and Brigati, then the rest of the group honed their live chops playing behind Joey Dee as Starliters (as in the “Peppermint Twist” Joey Dee), as well as in cover bands playing joints like the Choo-Choo Club.

To re-launch the band 40 years after their breakup, Van Zandt worked hard rehearsing them, to get that spirited, soulful Rascals sound down pat. And it’s during the musical numbers, particularly “A Beautiful Morning,” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” “A Girl Like You,” “Groovin’” and “How Can I Be Sure,” that there was lift-off at times into a dream pop realm beyond the clouds.

They all show the signs of time, as the audience does, and yet Brigati managed to channel the spirit of his wild, skinny young self, wailing away on the tambourines and doing the same antic dancing so familiar from the “Ed Sullivan Show” and “Shindig.”

Cavaliere’s voice, at 70, is a wonder. It always was unfathomable how such a soulful sound came out of the skinny guy up behind the Hammond B3, and now, amazing that he can still do it. His phrasing, as he sings “It’s a beautiful morning,” is buoyant, his voice swooping up effortlessly as he sang the “Wuh-oh oh ohhhh” part during the chorus.

Brigati had one of the toughest tasks, to sing his signature song, “How Can I Be Sure,” an emotional ballad in 3/4 time which requires him to explore the nether reaches of his upper register. The audience let out a collective sigh when his voice soared up on the line “Whenever I’m away from you,” and the ovation afterward was heartfelt. “The Rascals love you!” he yelled, in response.

After a spirited performance of “People Got To Be Free,” Brigati’s face fills the video screen, on tape.

“Felix wrote all that music, and the titles. He would have written the lyrics, but mine were better,” Brigati said, with a toothy grin. “We were the best cover band in the world (at that, the audience cheers), and we would have stayed that way, but Felix had a grain of ambition, to write songs. For that, we should thank Felix.”

By then, Cavaliere is standing behind the Hammond B3, his arms in the air, ready for his tribute. Each band member turns to salute and thank him.

It wasn’t an all-out group hug and apology, but for being away so long, missing out on the ‘70s, and ‘80s, and ‘90s, and part of the Oughts, we’ll take it.

The Rascals -- Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Gene Cornish and Dino Danelli -- perform at the Fox Theatre on Friday. / Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News
The Rascals' Gene Cornish on guitar during the group's performance at the ... (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
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