By Richard Ades
Stev Guyer never attended Joe Cocker’s 1969-71 tour, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but he saw a related documentary. Speaking on the opening night of Shadowbox Live’s new Cocker tribute show, the troupe’s executive producer said he took a lesson from the film that has shaped his thinking ever since.
The lesson: Performing is all about “the joy of doing the thing.”
That philosophy comes across in A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman. A departure from Shadowbox’s usual variety format, the show fills the entire front of the theater with singers and musicians, including four brass players borrowed from the Jazz Arts Group. Together, they pump out rock and blues with so much joy that the event could almost be mistaken for a religious revival meeting.
One tipoff that it isn’t: Rather than cajoling us to come to Jesus, the gospel-style chorus issues a more earthly invitation: Let’s Go Get Stoned. Really, though, who needs drugs when Cocker’s versions of tunes by the Beatles and others offer a natural high?
Honky Tonk Woman, Feelin’ Alright, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window: The first act alone is blessed with so many up-tempo, driving delights that the average viewer may well be exhausted by intermission. It comes as a relief that Shadowbox wisely starts Act 2 off on a more restrained note.
Halfway through the first act, the show includes a couple of numbers popularized not by Cocker, but by singer-songwriter Leon Russell. Before JT Walker III launches into a falsetto-spiced version of Tight Rope, we’re informed that Russell (who led the Mad Dogs and Englishmen band) actually deserves the credit for shaping the distinctive Cocker sound.
Whoever invented the sound, Shadowbox and its guests from JAG do a masterful job of re-creating it. All throw their hearts and souls into the music so totally that it’s probably unfair to choose an MVP, but I’ll do it anyway: Kevin Patrick Sweeney, whose limber keyboard work powers several songs, and whose lead vocals make Something and Sticks and Stones two of the evening’s highlights.
Walker, with his powerhouse voice and lithe dance movements, is another natural stand-in for the late Cocker (1944-2014). So is Guyer, whose many vocal contributions include his familiar rendition of Unchain My Heart.
Rounding out the male vocalists is his son, Gabriel Guyer, who brings his rich baritone voice to bear on the down-and-dirty Delta Lady and the inspiring Up Where We Belong (a nifty duet with Nikki Fagin).
Though Cocker’s lustier arrangements aren’t always a good match for female soloists, Shadowbox’s women excel on several numbers. Among them: Stacie Boord holds her own on Feelin’ Alright, with its series of calls and responses (Boord: “All right!” Chorus: “Uh-huh, uh-huh!”), then offers sweetly bluesy takes on The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Can’t Find My Way Home.
Another female-led highlight is Julie Klein’s rendition of Catfish, a blues number that tells an appropriately sad tale.
This is Shadowbox’s first collaboration with the Jazz Arts Group, and one can only hope it won’t be the last. Sax player Kris Keith is particularly prominent, but all four JAG musicians are given opportunities to shine.
With two percussionists (Matt “The Beast” Buchwalter and Brandon “Dreds” Smith) drumming simultaneously at center stage, guitarists wailing away at stage right and a smiling chorus singing with Pentecostal fervor at stage left, the Joe Cocker tribute is nearly as much fun to watch as it is to hear.
Frankly, it’s just fun, period. And, of course, joyful.
A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman continues through Sunday (March 8) at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.