With scalpers working the sidewalks outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the first of three sold-out reunion shows by the James Gang functioned to cement the band's place in rock history -- at least in Cleveland. In fact, the band is so revered here that a video of a 1971 performance on a European TV show called Beat Club, shown before the band even took the stage last Thursday, got an enthusiastic round of applause from the crowd of close to 200 that was squeezed into the Rock Hall's Fourth Floor Theater.
The James Gang, which formed in the late '60s and played regularly at small clubs in Cleveland and Kent during that period, has left behind a legacy that's still so potent, the reunion shows were some of the most anticipated concerts to take place here this year. But this, the most intimate of the three shows (for which, the band said, it didn't even rehearse or prepare any new material), suggests that, if the James Gang is to truly ride again, it's got some work ahead of it.
The clip from Beat Club provided Rock Hall Senior Director of Programming David Spero with the opportunity to get drummer Jim Fox, who was dressed casually in jeans and an Indians jersey, to reveal an anecdote about that trip to Europe. The best Fox could come up with was to recall how he was shocked to see "a crop of European armpit hair" on a beautiful woman at the hotel where they stayed. It was an inauspicious way to begin what was to be the band's first significant performance together in 30 years.
After the armpit icebreaker, Spero re-created the band's history, complete with references to Fox's former band, the Outsiders, and guitarist Joe Walsh's group, the Measles. He went through the discography released by that lineup of the band, even touching upon the "acid Western" Zachariah, a 1970 film for which the group recorded the soundtrack.
Because his eyes were still sensitive from recent surgery, Walsh had requested there be no flash photography and had the house lights kept dim. His answers to Spero's questions were funny, though not always intentionally so, as he recalled driving the band's van some 18 miles in reverse, one night in Mansfield when the transmission went out. He spoke in a methodical, gravelly, William Burroughs-like voice that suggested he wasn't altogether there. The conversation portion of the show, replete with stories about fabled recording sessions with Little Richard ("He wanted to ball me," Walsh quipped. "But it's no big deal -- he wanted to ball everyone") and rejection letters from record labels (one of which began "Dear Mr. Gang"), didn't provide insight into the band's artistic abilities, but was filled with enough local color to be mildly interesting. The real draw was to see the band perform together again, and that would come only after a question-and-answer session with the audience that thankfully didn't drag on for too long.
Walsh began the short set by his lonesome, playing a version of "Garden Gate" on which he stalled at least once to remember the words -- something that he had earlier warned might be a problem. He was better when accompanied by Fox and bassist Dale Peters (keyboardist Mark Avsec also played on several songs), both of whom joined him for the remaining six songs. The band delivered "Walk Away" with a wallop, but Walsh struggled to hit the high notes on "Midnight Man," and the band sounded out of sync on "Tend My Garden." It wasn't until the final song, a rousing rendition of "Funk #49," that the group really hit a groove -- and even then the Beachwood High School marching band percussion section that joined it sounded tighter than Fox, Peters, and Walsh.
If anything, the abbreviated and subdued set (the group played longer sets at the two Allen Theatre shows held over the weekend) displayed the band's limits. While it had opened for the likes of Cream and the Who back in its heyday, in the late '60s and early '70s, it was always held back by the fact that Walsh, a funny and irascible character in interviews, wasn't much of a frontman. And he still isn't. Sure, he can play guitar like a motherfucker, but his singing is passable at best. In the interview portion of the show, Walsh himself even admitted that he was forced into the position of being a lead singer when he joined the group.
Afterward, a good portion of the Rock Hall crowd migrated over to Major Hoopples, a club in the Flats, to see the Schwartz Bros. perform. The possibility of an appearance by Walsh, who has been known to sit in with the band, was undoubtedly the lure. Yet by 1 a.m., Walsh hadn't shown. What was revealing, however, was the fact that guitarist Glenn Schwartz, an original member of the James Gang who left the group before it started recording to join Pacific Gas & Electric, was playing with a fervor that exceeded that of the reunited James Gang. Standing on top of his amplifier, his guitar hoisted in the air, Schwartz was animated, passionate, and intense -- all the things that the James Gang, as down-to-earth and good-natured as they might have been when conversing with Spero about their reunion, weren't.
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