Raspberries – Pop Art Live (Omnivore) review

Finally, the live album Raspberries’ fans  have been waiting for

When Eric Carmen reunited with the Raspberries for a series of shows in 2004-2005, it gave thousands of fans a chance to see the fathers of power pop in concert for the first time in 30 years. A live disc, Live on Sunset Strip, came out in 2007, commemorating the reunion. Yet, that album was missing something. I was lucky to catch another Cleveland concert in 2005, and I can tell you, it was phenomenal. Finally, here comes Pop Art Live, a true document of what the Raspberries were capable of in concert.

There’s a definite buzz in these recordings – you can hear it in the crowd, and you can feel it in the versions of these songs. They’d been rehearsing for months. Now, after over three decades apart, it was showtime once again.

Jim Bonfanti kicks off the party with a tightly wound drum roll like it was shot out of a cannon – the band roars into “I Wanna Be With You,” and 32 years fade away. The original four-piece serves up 28 slices of rockin’ pop, covering material from all four of the group’s studio albums, along with some surprises as well.

Charting singles like the sweet balladry of “Let’s Pretend, the crunching power chords of “Tonight,” and their magnum opus, “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” sit alongside the Byrds-inspired, Wally Bryson-led “Last Dance,” and the Beatles ’65-infused acoustic “Nobody Knows.” In fact, the mid-period Fab Four are represented with three covers – “No Reply,” “Ticket to Ride,” and a fine duo vocal between Carmen and Bryson on “Baby’s in Black.” The other cover qualifies as possibly the very first power pop song ever, the Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” which they do with the spirit of teenagers.

They even do a pair of songs from a pre-Raspberries band called the Choir, which featured everyone but Carmen. “When You Were With Me” has a haunting quality, while the more poppy “It’s Cold Outside” was the one that actually graced the lower rungs of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967.

Although the band were primarily known for their tight rock songs, they were also capable of sweeping ballads. In fact, the live rendition of “I Can Remember” actually outdoes the studio version, beginning soft, morphing into jangly power chords and descending melodies, before ending on a majestic note. There’s pretty much everything but the kitchen sink on this one.

Carmen was the primary songwriter and vocalist, but bassist Dave Smalley and lead guitarist Wally Bryson get a chance to shine as well. Smalley turns in the countryfied “Should I Wait,” and a great rocker, “Hard to Get Over a Heartbreak,” while Bryson shows off his diversity with the light pop of “Come Around and See Me,” and the blistering rocker, “Party’s Over,” which features some of his finest guitar work ever put on tape. He does create some comic relief when he changes the lyrics of “older and wiser” to “older and wider.”

At one point, a crazed fan inquires loudly “how does it feel”? To which Carmen replies, “It feels great, it feels great, man.”

The band’s last few songs are some of their finest – “Ecstasy” is hands-down the best single the band released that did not chart, while they turn in an extended take on the churning “I’m a Rocker.” The extra-special evening closed with a spirited take on their signature song, “Go All the Way,” (the one that every kid in America knows thanks to its inclusion on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack).

In direct comparison, the 2007 Live on Sunset Strip set lacked punch. The drums, which were so crucial to the Raspberries’ fury, were buried in the mix, and the whole performance sounded watery. Here, the drums are up, the harmonies and guitars are big, and the band just sounds fantastic.

The two-disc set provides almost two hours of music, and is accompanied by a booklet featuring ‘berries ephemera, along with essays by director Cameron Crowe, Fox News’ correspondent James Rosen, and Raspberries’ biographers Ken Sharp and Bernie Hogya.

This is the rare reunion album that actually captures the essence of a great band, 30 years after their heyday. Pop Art is the quintessential Raspberries live document, for devoted fans, and anyone wanting to know more about the fathers of power pop. —Tony Peters