Nostalgia was a winner when the Choir sold out this Cleveland venue on March 4, drawing fans who used to see the storied band in the late ’60s at National Guard armory shows, teen dances and early Who and late Yardbirds concerts. The weekend dates were a dandy way to mark the sixth anniversary of the comfortable Beachland, a club with great personality, a great jukebox and a commendable, well-deserved reputation for presenting original, vernacular pop.
Power drummer Jim Bonfanti, versatile guitarist/vocalist Dave Smalley and mighty guitarist Wally Bryson joined Eric Carmen in the Raspberries in 1970, putting an end to the Choir, a band from the city of Mentor east of Cleveland. The Choir scored a local smash in spring 1967 with “It’s Cold Outside,” a plaintive slice of British Invasion-styled pop written by then-drummer/current rhythm guitarist Dan Klawon. The band evolved from the Mods, which Klawon launched in 1964.
This reunion was spurred by a Raspberries reunion in 2004. The few dates the Raspberries mounted in 2005 did well commercially and critically, prompting calls for the Choir’s sole hit. This gathering, the first time several of these musicians had played together in 17 years, was the response (Carmen attended both shows but didn’t perform).
The hour-long set was largely a replica of Mods/Choir dates from the middle and late ’60s. The frontman was Smalley, who turned in sweet versions of the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” Billy J. Kramer’s “Bad to Me” and a winningly handled special request for Gerry and the Pacemakers’ treacly “Ferry Across the Mersey.” Bryson, a dazzling guitarist with an achingly sweet lyrical sense, handled the tougher, Stones-styled tunes, like “It’s All Over Now” and “We Got a Good Thing Going.” The surprise was relative newcomer Kenny Margolis, a keyboard player who joined the Choir after the success of “It’s Cold.” Although his voice was weak on the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” he hit his stride on the Zombies’ “Tell Her No” and nailed it on “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
Everybody got his props. Dave “Squire” Burke, the wiry bassist whose earthy, jazzy style makes “It’s Cold” so memorable, anchored strong takes of the Who’s “The Kids Are All Right” and “Good Thing” and offset Margolis’ inspired vocals on “Gimme Some Lovin'” with resonant, standup bass. Klawon, too, shone on harmonica on several tunes and delivered a warm, sexy vocal on “Save the Last Dance for Me,” referencing both the Drifters’ original and the Searchers’ take he likes so much.
Above all, the night was about fun, as Mods and Choir shows were way back when Lake and Cuyahoga counties were awakening to the British Invasion. Grounded in the sounds of the Byrds, the Searchers, the Beau Brummels and above all, the Beatles, the Choir was one of innumerable bands eager to put their own stamp on pop.
The opening acts were good, too. The Es Shades, a quartet from the Ashland area of north-central Ohio, did a gang of Animals and Chuck Berry tunes and a few originals. Sparked by the gruff vocals of Mark Lance and the pyrotechnic guitar of Cathy Fissell (just imagine a female lead guitarist in a rock band in 1965), they got the crowd moving, setting the tone for the Alarm Clocks, a Parma band working a similarly dated repertoire.
Like the Es Shades, the Alarm Clocks did Animals, Stones and Berry, along with “No Reason To Complain,” a raw original that has made them a minor garage-band legend. Mike Pierce was an odd, commanding presence, a vocalist so visceral and insistent he transcended his material.