The last time the Left Banke stepped onto a stage to perform together as a band was 1969, so to say those in the audience at Joe's Pub last weekend were breathless with anticipation would be an extreme understatement. Two shows had been scheduled - March 5 and 6 - and sold out in a bohemian fingersnap. Original band members Tom Finn and George Cameron and longtime musical associate (although he was never "in" the band) Charly Cazalet were joined onstage by Mike Fornatale (lead vocals, guitar), Paul Alves (guitar), Mickey Finn and Joe McGinty (keyboards), and the Grip Weeds' Rick Reil on drums - in addition to a string section consisting of Susan Aquila on violin and cellists Eleanor Norton (on Saturday) and Jenn DeVore (on Sunday). At the Saturday show, one of the band's original lyricists, Tom Feher, also joined them onstage.
This august group played 21 songs, many of them from the first two Left Banke albums which have been languishing on the dusty shelves of rock & roll history lo these many years - but, thanks to Sundazed Records, will be reissued this spring (with an attention to detail sorely lacking in the original releases - mastered properly for the first time from the original two and three track mixes). Long out of print, Left Banke compilations are currently going for over $150. And one thing these shows proved beyond a doubt: there's far, far more to this band then their 1967 hit Walk Away, Renee. Just about every song is a miniature baroque-pop masterpiece.
Starting with She May Call You Up Tonight, each song sounded as fresh as the last time it was played onstage, and if you squinted and didn't look too clearly at the stage or register the drink prices it could have been 1968 again. Especially when the psychedelic light show bathed the walls behind the musicians. I scribbled notes as best as I could in the semi-darkness, later reading back perfunctory comments like "perfection," "spun sugar," and "impeccable." And again - it wasn't just the songs I remembered, like Pretty Ballerina or Barterers and Their Wives - but also songs I didn't remember at all, like Dark is the Bark and Sing Little Bird Sing, Shadows Breaking Over My Head and Lazy Day.
Mike Fornatale, without whom - holy Jesus - this could not have happened, told me that the genesis for the reunion began about a year ago when George Cameron and Paul Alves met by chance and started to jam together. They brought Charly in to join them and eventually started talking about getting something going. Most of the original string charts had been done by band member and lyricist Michael Brown's father, a professional violinist. Once Mike Fornatale contacted them and came into the mix as lead singer (original lead singer Steve Martin-Caro being in Florida, and well out of the music business), he also painstakingly recreated those string charts freehand in order to bring back the original sound that made this band so very special in the 1960's. This took several months.
Fornatale, who has the uncanny ability that is the hallmark of a great singer to go from an angelic soprano to an exquisitely controlled scream, brought everything he had to this show and then some. He made this band, and their songs, live again - and thrive. When it came time for the end - and of course, Walk Away, Renee was the final song before the encore - you couldn't hear anything but the music for that space of just under three minutes. No ice tinkling in a glass. No coughing. No whispering. Nothing. Just perhaps the most perfect piece of pop music ever created, luminous, sparkling like a jewel: "Now as the rain beats down upon my weary eyes...for me it cries."
For more on the Left Banke, visit their official website