John Sebastian Still Believes in Magic As He Reflects on the Lovin' Spoonful's Timeless Hits

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John Sebastian, founding member of The Lovin' Spoonful, performs onstage during the Wild Honey Foundation's benefit for Autism Think Tank at Alex Theatre on Feb. 29, 2020 in Glendale, Calif.

John Sebastian pretended to wipe away a tear during a rehearsal late last week, as a string section performed the final aching notes of “Lonely (Amy's Theme),” an exceptionally deep cut from the Lovin’ Spoonful catalog.

“Get ready, because there's not going to be a dry eye when those violins come in,” said Sebastian, 75, whose harmonica lines mingle romantically with strings on the instrumental originally recorded for the 1966 movie soundtrack of You're a Big Boy Now.

The song hints at a surprisingly broad musical palate from a band of ‘60s hit-makers best known for the pop singles “Do You Believe In Magic,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” and “Summer in the City.” In the original band’s brief three-year run, the Spoonful players also stretched from jug blues to early innovations in country-rock.

Sebastian left the New York band in 1968 and last reconvened with its original members at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. But he was back onstage Saturday night (Feb. 29) with bassist Steve Boone and singer-drummer Joe Butler for a vibrant Spoonful tribute at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calif. More than 30 Lovin’ Spoonful songs were performed over three hours at the annual Wild Honey tribute concert, which in previous years has recreated classic songs and albums by the likes of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and the Band. The concerts, organized by founder Paul Rock, raise funds and awareness for the Autism Think Tank.

“I think the band is a little underappreciated in the big picture of ‘60s music,” said Boone, 76. “John should be even more credited with being a fantastically versatile songwriter.”

Joining the surviving Spoonful trio on Saturday was the Wild Honey Orchestra, led by musical director Rob Laufer, and a cast of gifted singers and soloists, including Dave Alvin, Micky Dolenz, Marshall Crenshaw, Carnie Wilson, Skylar Gudasz and Carla Olson.

“When I realized the scope of this project, I was just so impressed with the effort,” said Sebastian, who spent most of the night onstage. “I guess their first question was, ‘Would you come and play harmonica on ‘Night Owl Blues’? I said, ‘Well, sure, but I know a lot of these songs.’ And they say 'Oh you mean you'd like to play?' And I said, 'Damn right, I'd play!'”

Since 1991, Boone and Butler have continued to tour with a latter-day version of the Spoonful without Sebastian. (Original guitarist Zal Yanovsky died in 2002.) Before Saturday’s concert, the trio turned down all of the many offers to reunite over the years. “The magic comes back very easily when the three of us are together,” Boone said. “Was I ever concerned that we wouldn't ever have a legacy moment like this? Yes. I think that's important.”

After beginning the show with a dedication to Wild Honey musicians and supporters who died in the last year (including Muffs singer-guitarist Kim Shattuck and music executive Gary Stewart), the music began with the Spoonful trio performing acoustic takes on “Coffee Blues,” “Lovin' You” and “Full Measure” -- songs that Boone said were both challenging and among his most favorite to perform. Cars guitarist Elliot Easton later dedicated the evening to late Spoonful guitarist Yanovsky: “I feel his spirit is with us tonight."

Longtime Brian Wilson keyboardist Darian Sahanaja joined the Three O'Clock on “She’s Still a Mystery,” a Spoonful song at their most pop, as Sebastian impulsively ran out to sing the song's final syllable. Guitarist Dave Alvin played a searing "Night Owl Blues" instrumental, trading euphoric blues licks with Sebastian's deep harmonica blasts. It was followed by the bruising “4 Eyes” from Peter Case and Carla Olson. As Case walked off the stage, Sebastian greeted him: “That was so good! That was so good!”

Another emotional highlight was the former Ikette Claudia Lennear in sequined cap singing “You Baby” like a ‘60s R&B standard as Sebastian strummed autoharp beside her. Mark Eitzel delivered a dreamy "Didn't Want To Have To Do It" and Cindy Lee Berryhill sang "Money," accompanied by a trio of banjos and Jim Laspesa tapping percussion on a typewriter (just as it is on the original recording). When Easton was a little slow to get onstage for "Darlin' Companion," singer-guitarist Bill Mumy joked about sending him to "the cornfield" -- a reference to a famous episode of The Twilight Zone from Mumy's previous life as a child actor. Butler belted out “Never Going Back,” which landed like '70s-era Elvis Presley.

Some of the night’s songs had never before been performed live by the Spoonful. Sebastian said he didn’t anticipate in the '60s that their songs would have a life decades later. “We were hoping that our tunes would last for a couple of months so that they could be in the Billboard Top 100,” he said. “There wasn't a goal beyond that.” Sebastian had expected a big reunion of another kind last year at a massive festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, where he fully established himself as a solo artist in 1969 with an unplanned acoustic set. He was one of the last artists to give up on the aborted 2019 celebration led by founder Michael Lang, as the show collapsed over issues of money, infrastructure and location.

“As it was developing, I kept looking at those enormous personnel lists and thinking. How do you cram all of this into a three-day thing?” said Sebastian. “I thought, wow, I don't know how they're going to do it. It was so ambitious I thought they may be killing their own fun.”

The fun he was craving was much more in effect at the Wild Honey concert. At night’s end, the entire cast of players crowded onto the stage to perform “Do You Believe In Magic,” the Spoonful’s first single and a hopeful tune that Sebastian said epitomizes the sound and personality of his former band. “It was something that happened to me. I didn't really write that song,” he said. “It happened. And I was so delighted.”

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