Tommy James has been in bands for sixty years, and for a good portion of his career was the ghost of pop music financial hell yet to come, where, unable to get any money from mobster Morris Levy’s Roulette Record at the height of his success, were forced to tour in order to eat. Sound familiar? Yes, in effect Tommy was the first victim of streaming, by other means but the result, not getting paid for your recordings, was the exact same.
That was SIXTY YEARS since forming his first band at the age of twelve in 1959, and never really stopping since then. In 1990, Levy died, and in 2019 the story of Tommy and the Mafia is in pre-production with Barbara De Fina (Mrs. Martin Scorsese to you), who is working on a movie and a Broadway Jukebox musical based upon Tommy’s 2010 book; De Fina is currently putting the creative team together. They certainly have the soundtrack for it. James first caught fire when his cover of an Ellie Greenwich song “Hanky Panky” went viral, and then over the 60s, he co-wrote a handful of gold standards, “Crimson And Clover,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony” and more. Last night at Ridgefield Playhouse, the not for profit Connecticut outpost, he brought the songs and added a full strength hard rock band, synths, piano, two guitars and bass, and had the well heeled septuagenarians kicking up their feet .
Ridgefield Playhouse is my not septuaragian partner in rocknyc.live, Sohojohnny Pasquale’s, go to venue and I can see why. Being a not for profit they can sign up major acts that are simply too big for the 500 seater, it as close as you can possibly get to an artist as important as Tommy (Or Debbie Harry for that matter, who I caught here last year). The evening was a thrill of 60s rock and roll, opening with a terrific cover band called The Straitjackets. The gift the Straitjackets have, with just bass, drums, and one guitar, is just how capable they are of playing everything from “I Can’t Explain” to “Theme From The Monkees” to “Joy To The World”. What the Straitjackets do is skilfully underplaying: they let these great songs do the work for them and everyone comes out sounding better for it. I was so impressed I turned to Sohojohnny and recommend he sign them for his annual Stamford disco and rock show on August 10th.
Tommy can easily perform a 90 minute set of high octane hard rock, his band is a blast of dynamite and Tommy’s voice is in immaculate condition, I’ve always considered the classic Shondells line up bubblegum’s answer to the Four Season, which would make James…? On his current album Alive (a studio album, “as opposed to dead,” James explained) gives us what he withholds in concert, a version of James as a current artist still cresting. Alive is one of the best albums of the year, a sign of the dark arts at work as it never stops being great, including a rap and a guest appearance by Steve Van Zandt (on the same song). Why not include “So Beautiful” or “A Doo Wop Shuffle Parts One Or Two” in his stage presentation? We do get the acoustic “I Think We’re Alone Now” -as well as a rock take, we get an extended “Mony Mony” where the band jams out and Tommy walks off stage and down to the auditorium shaking hands with his fans throughout the hall (after the show he would sign items for folks for, wait for it, FREE). The last person I saw do the walk was Taylor Swift in 2009, it worked for her and it works for him. The band maintain “Mony Mony” groove as though they could do it forever and Tommy thanks just about everybody he can reach. I met James backstage (don’t look at me -Sohojohnny had the juice) and he is really a lovely guy; that comes across so strong in the personable, sweet yet hard performance, the vibe wasn’t bubblegum, or acid rock, but synth fueled hard rock with vocals loud and a roil of guitar right beneath Tommy. There were odd highlights, Tommy’s “I Walk The Line” parody, which makes you wonder if he can sing Johnny that well why not just cover the song? the second song of the evening was a very strong “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and the entire second half of was an astonishing place where Tommy sounded more like 70s classic rock then 60s anything at all. Oh, and Sohojohnny’s friend Dave made the winning bid on James’ guitar.
The sixty years have taught James something that any musician would do well to study, how to respect your audience. Rockers can’t do humble, it is the antithesis of the form, and Tommy isn’t humble, what he is is self-aware of where he stands and where the audience stands, and he treats them with the utmost respect. In 2019, treating people with respect is a lost art form, and it was really great to see it.
Also, in case it isn’t clear, James was in front of the best bubblegum songs just about ever, it was an entire honor to see him at all and to see him so completely capable of performing these songs and entertaining us as we should be entertained, makes the trip to anywhere he is performing worth the time.
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Iman thank you for your kind words and review of The Straightjackets. I couldn’t agree with you more about Tommy. Really just blew me away watching him from across the stage. Never knew he wrote tighter, tighter either! His drummer “hitman” is an animal on the skins!