Shadowbox, JAG collaborate on joyful Cocker tribute

Shadowbox Live is setting aside most of its regular shows this week for its tribute to Joe Cocker, Mad Dog and Englishman
Shadowbox Live is setting aside most of its regular shows this week for A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman

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.

Live, from Columbus! It’s the Beatles!

Andy Ankrom takes the helm in Yellow Submarine, one of 33 Beatles tunes featured in Bigger Than Jesus (photo by Will Shively)
Andy Ankrom takes the helm in Yellow Submarine, one of 33 Beatles tunes featured in Bigger Than Jesus (photo by Will Shively)

By Richard Ades

Even if you’ve always idolized the Beatles, chances are you’ll learn something new from Bigger Than Jesus. Shadowbox Live’s “live rockumentary” intersperses songs from the Fab Four’s incredible canon with tidbits of information about the group.

For instance, did you know that in 1964 the Liverpudlian quartet refused to play the Gator Bowl until the Florida facility set aside its segregated ways? Or that Blackbird (whose title was mod slang for “black girl”) was a response to the civil rights movement?

And did you know that Eric Clapton had an uncredited guitar solo in While My Guitar Gently Weeps?

Well, maybe you knew that, but you won’t mind if the show’s narrators occasionally tell you stuff you’ve already heard. You’ll be too busy enjoying the music that makes up the bulk of its running time. Performed in roughly chronological order, the songs are some of the band’s biggest and best hits.

Given John, Paul, George and Ringo’s well-known expertise as musicians and recording innovators, a Beatles retrospective is a dangerous undertaking. Viewers won’t be satisfied unless the song renditions approximate the fun and excitement of the originals. For the vast majority of the show, Shadowbox succeeds.

After a few early numbers that are merely pleasant, things begin to heat up with Kevin Sweeney’s electrifying delivery of Help! JT Walker III then slows things down with the first of several numbers to benefit from his golden touch, the gorgeous Norwegian Wood.

Afterward, director Stev Guyer explains the John Lennon quote that gave the show its name. According to documentary footage projected on the room’s video screen, Lennon’s sardonic comment that the Beatles would surpass Jesus in popularity led to a boycott in at least one Southern city. The KKK also jumped on the anti-Beatles bandwagon, we learn.

Guyer begins the evening by jokingly apologizing to viewers whose favorite songs were inevitably left out. There were simply too many great ones to choose from, he says.

Indeed, it’s not hard to think of classics that didn’t make the cut: Yesterday, for one. Or She Loves You, the joyous anthem that helped to define the mopheads during their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

But there are so many other gems that are included. Some of the most memorable (and their featured vocalists): Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Leah Haviland), Magical Mystery Tour (Amy Lay and Walker), Penny Lane (Will Macke), Helter Skelter (Stephanie Shull), While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Jeff Simpson) and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Sweeney).

Many numbers are marked by fine harmonizing on the part of backup singers. In others, the Matthew Hahn-led band plays a leading role, as when surreal instrumental crescendos interrupt in A Day in the Life.

The psychedelic and colorful costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Helenberger) help to recapture an era and a band that were increasingly influenced by mind-altering drugs. Katy Psenicka’s choreography is another important element of the proceedings. It’s especially enjoyable when the vocalists themselves bust a few moves, as they do in When I’m Sixty-Four (sung by Tom Cardinal, Haviland and Macke).

If you’re old enough to remember the Beatles, Bigger Than Jesus is nostalgic fun. If you’re not, it’s one hell of a history lesson.

Bigger Than Jesus: A Live Rockumentary About the Band That Changed the World continues through Aug. 7 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays, 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.