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Infusing Old Songs with Modern Sensibilities

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The first sign of kindred spirits I saw came in the form of a pair of young men. One had grown a thick black mustache that he complemented with a big black curly haired wig. He wore a denim vest with denim shorts and construction boots. His friend had a wig of long, flowing blonde hair, draping below the shoulders of his bright green suit jacket, which he wore over a white T-Shirt that fell just above the zipper of his black jeans. Perfect faux-‘80s-Hall and Oates. Two girls in shorts and tank tops ran up to them with cans of beer, one of them let out a “Wooo!” Oh good, I thought, we’re back at a rock show.


Due to a strict no food or drink policy in the pavilion, which in spite of myself I applaud because it spares me the nuisance of dealing with people who get up and down throughout shows to make repeated beer and bathroom runs, I slugged a can of beer, dropped it in a trash can, and we made our way to our seats. The only sign more prominent and pervasive than the “No Smoking” logo plastered all over the grounds was a “Please Recycle” command. My unintentional error of depositing the aluminum can into the waste basket full of unrecyclable material went unpunished, whether it caused the Earth’s temperature to slightly spike or not.


Pockets of excitable youth were scattered around the pavilion, along with people in blue jeans. Most of the crowd, however, resembled the leisurely picnic preppies. The opening band, Chicago’s own Company of Thieves, played a brief, but eclectic set of punk rock, love ballads, and soulful dance numbers. Lead singer Genevieve Schatz, wearing red spandex, sang and screamed viciously into the microphone while making animated hand gestures toward the crowd. I would see her wildly dancing slightly off stage throughout most of Hall and Oates’ set, but while she sang with the rest of Company of Thieves behind her on guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums, most of the Hall and Oates band stood slightly off stage watching with clear focus and bopping their heads in approval. Highlights of the set included a love song that name checks and pays tribute to Oscar Wilde, an angry protest song in which Schatz sang through a megaphone called “Gorgeous/Grotesque,” and “Tallulah,” a poppy soul song with a big hook and full horn section that sounded like it could have been written by Daryl Hall and John Oates.


Company of Thieves were a guest on Live From Daryl’s House after the release of their first album in 2009, and they certainly had the approval of Hall and Oates and received roars of applause from the younger members of the audience at Ravinia. A woman dripping in diamond rings seated over my left shoulder shouted her complaint that the music was “too loud” in a voice louder than the music to her nodding husband. A couple in matching white cashmere sweaters in front of us seemed intent on looking anywhere and everywhere but the stage. The band, despite the solemn and boring atmosphere created by a bulk of the crowd, put on an impressive show, and thanks to Daryl Hall, who gave them a big break with his internet webcast that Schatz mentioned several times, likely has a big future ahead of them.


After a brief intermission, Hall and Oates took the stage to the reception one would expect a speaker to receive at a PTA meeting. I stood up and cheered, as did the pockets of young people in the audience, a mother and son enjoying the show behind me, and few other scattered music lovers, but the rest of the audience sat on their hands.


The opening notes of the number 1 single “Maneater” filled the air and the band played it with an energy and ferocity that resulted from not only from having three guitars in the mix, but those “modern sensibilities” that Oates talked about. Like the songs that followed it – “Method of Modern Love”, “Say It Isn’t So”, and “Out of Touch” – it sounded like it would fit well on top 40 radio next week, but managed to still hold strongly to its Philly soul and Motown foundation.


After the high-powered assault of “Out of Touch”, Hall and Oates settled into a string of mid-tempo soul tunes that showed off Hall’s vocal power and prowess and the band’s nearly flawless exercise of excellence musicianship. “It’s a Laugh”, “Las Vegas Turnaround”, which Oates sings lead on, and “She’s Gone” had the band locked into such a tight groove that if the arrangements and rhythm didn’t sound organic, it would be difficult to believe that these were live performances. In an era of overproduced, auto-tuned, cut and paste recording it is magnificent and important to see a group of singers and musicians not only playing music, but making it, without the aid of excessive technology, at a level of the highest quality in real time.


Charlie Dechant on saxophone was the standout player, playing varied solo after solo and knowing exactly when to drop in and out of songs with fills and rhythmic backup. Everett Bradley on percussion and backup vocals has a voice strong enough to keep up with Hall. Paul Pesco’s guitar solos had the dynamism associated with a rock show, while Eliot Lewis played keyboards with subtlety or strength, depending on the song, and sang harmony. Drummer, Brian Dunne, kept the beat whether it was a slow churning ballad or energetic dance tune.


John Oates, who sings excellent backup vocals and plays fiery guitar licks, mainly takes a backseat to the charismatic lead singer, but his solo work, especially Mississippi Mile, along with his songwriting credits on many of the duo’s biggest and best songs, prove that he’s not a mere sidekick.


The groove in the songs was so pure that when they were about love and sex, it seemed natural to think only about love and sex, rather than music, concerts, or tickets.


The soulful funk culminated in a song that Daryl Hall introduced by calling it a song about how “Some things should always last. In a world of impermanence, something needs to last.” He then led the band through a six minute version of “Sara Smile” in which he Gospel shouted, falsetto wailed, and jazzy scat sang to demonstrate why Smokey Robinson on Live From Daryl’s House said that Hall is one of the greatest singers he’s ever heard.


Dave Stewart, another recent guest, put it best, however, when he said that “Daryl has a way of expressing things that most people cannot attain to. His voice is so magnificent that it can cut through the crap and hit you right in the heart.”


Hall’s voice hits the chord of the soul, just as Smokey Robinson’s, Al Green’s, Aretha Franklin’s, Mary J. Blige’s, or any great soul singer’s does. His voice represents and presents an emotional truth that goes beyond mere words on a page.


The audience was still largely lethargic and boring, and even “Do What You Want, Be What You Are”, a soulful jam couldn’t bring them out of their snobbish sleep.


The line to get back on the bus at the end of the show snaked around guard rails and must have held a few thousand people. A group of 20-somethings walked by shouting the chorus of “Private Eyes” at the top of their lungs, while a few teenagers chanted “train” as they ran to catch one that was boarding at nearby tracks. One young guy, after looking at the length of the line, said to no one in particular, “This can’t be real.”


As we stood there waiting, it occurred to me that most of the Ravinia crowd represents the people who run the country. Their values, priorities, and preferences shape the country’s policies and culture. They are people who refuse to open themselves up to moments of emotional possibility during a night of popular music. They are the cold, unfeeling, and arrogant elite that sold out culture to commerce, worry about tax cuts more than they do the poor, and think the world’s health and environmental problems can be solved with indoor smoking bans and bike paths in the nicer neighborhoods.


Hall got them, though. He, Oates, and the band closed the main set with an extended version of “I Can’t Go For That”, the pop, dance, and soul tune that had a “Billie Jean” beat before Michael Jackson put out “Billie Jean”. Hall sang with ferocity and the band turned the festival grounds into a night club. Most of the crowd stood and danced at the club through the exciting encore set of “Rich Girl”, “You Make My Dreams Come True”, “Kiss On My List”, and “Private Eyes”.


Live music, especially in the hands of a group with the talent of Hall and Oates, has value beyond mere escapism. The duo provided first class entertainment, but they provided an example for living with a commitment to vitality and a devotion to enthusiasm. The hope is that when Hall and Oates finally got those otherwise uptight people to lose themselves in the moment and stand up to dance, they taught them to live with less restraint and taught them to open up to lives of greater joy.


The future of that hope is uncertain, but at Ravinia, Hall won a victory for passion over haughtiness, and by doing so, he proved that even detached people are reachable, and he answered the question that ran through my mind during my first bus ride of the night, “Is it worth it?”


It is.

David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). He is currently writing his second book, Faith That Won't Die, a work of literary journalism about life in the American rust belt. He has written for the Daily Beast, Truthout, Relevant, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is 27 and lives in Indiana. For more information, an article archive, and blog visit www.davidmasciotra.com.


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