Frankie Valli @MEN Manchester Arena 26/07/15
Becoming a bit of a debate this. Do you go and see your heroes in their later years or not? Do you leave it to those old vinyls and grainy images to tell the story or do you expect the passage of the years to have taken a bit of a toll and turn up regardless?
Circumstances meant it would have been ridiculously easy for me to get to Manchester to see one of rock n roll’s true originals. Now about 80 years old, this guy has been taking money off of people for singing to them since 1955. His band, admittedly along with Motown and The Beach Boys, almost single-handedly held their own against the British invasion in the early to mid-sixties, enjoyed some absolutely classic hits in the later sixties, had a string of solo international hits in the seventies before his band came back to produce albums and singles which defined American FM radio in the mid to late seventies. During this period they made a record which for many people defines ‘great night out’ and is probably one of the most played ‘feelgood tunes’ ever. He is Frankie Valli, front man of The Four Seasons, the man who inspired “The Jersey Boys” and upon whom the storyline is based and who I wasn’t particularly surprised to see twinkling away on the BBC Breakfast sofa a couple of mornings previous.
In amongst the questions about collar size, stage costume fabric colours etc etc one of the presenters asked him if he could still reach the high notes, some of the earlier tunes having stratospheric highs. ‘Yes, I can,’ came the answer. And guess what?
The set was split into two halves with a straightforward intermission between the two halves of the show (oh come on, the guy is 80-ish!). The band are on the lavish side of what you’d expect; an array of the best musicians in the business, a horn section which could and did Blow (and you need it with some of the arrangements) and four relatively youthful male singers who were just what was needed. Frankie Valli can still hit the high notes; his voice still has that fantastic slightly nasal quality but fabulous range and emotional power that engages so completely but the support given by the backing singers complemented him brilliantly – sweeping in to add some depth when he ran out of air on occasion, thickening out the sound where it was needed but NOT by ‘becoming’ Frankie Valli. Yer man himself did all that.
The band took the stage and swung into a swinging, greasy “Grease” and popped through a couple of earlier originals – “Dawn” being a particular high point. They then montage the fabulous “My Eyes Adored You” with a welcome acknowledgement that Brit fans got this one first before it broke in the States, along with other hits which were recorded as solo pieces for Private Stock records in the seventies, “Fallen Angel” and “Swearing to God”. This was followed by an intriguing run through various sixties covers from the ‘Frankie Valli “Romances The Sixties” album released a couple of years or so back, featuring “Spanish Harlem”, The Everly Bros “Let It Be Me”, an interesting choice of crowd-pleaser mixing The Temptations “My Girl” with The Young Rascals summer of ’67 beauty “Groovin’” before rounding out with a gorgeous falsetto on Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs “Stay”.
Two ways of looking at this or course, you could reflect on during the ‘intermission’; Either it’s a bit of a cop – out especially when your own back catalogue will be dripping gems which will not get an airing tonight; or, (and I prefer this version) if anyone has the solid – gold right to cover this stuff and do so with affection and understanding, Mr V has earned the right about fifty times over.
The referee blows the whistle for the second half and the band strikes up with “Working my Way Back to You” (and yes, millions still think this is a Detroit Spinners original – many of whom would no doubt be flummoxed by the later Bay City Rollers ‘cover’, “Bye-Bye Baby”) followed by a rabble-rousing “Opus 17”, one of many hits adopted by soul and Northern fans everywhere at the time. A particular high spot for me in more ways than one was the sumptuous harmonies on “Silence Is Golden”, a UK number 1 for The Tremeloes but originally and in global terms a double-A-sided ‘flip’ hit on the back of “Rag Doll” (in the days when records has ‘sides’.)
All stage lights set to stun (note to person with follow-spot; it’s the little guy in the middle who keeps singing, OK?) and smoke effects on full and it’s time for Frankie to set to cruise for a couple whilst he ‘leans’ on the band a bit whilst they perform a spirited “Who Loves You” and everybody’s favourite dance-like-your-dad song “December ’63”. He stayed on stage and did the odd bit and led the audience vocal contributions – and that’s absolutely as it should be as Frankie didn’t actually perform ‘lead’ vocal on either of these although his contributions are clear and obvious on the originals. And the Showbiz wasn’t overdone either; the band intro was probably a bit too long and of course there were plenty of opportunities for the audience to indulge in communal karaoke but it never became overly gooey and happy-clappy for its own sake (pet hate of mine). It always seems to me the Americans are the masters of this, especially those who have learned their craft and paid ‘proper’ dues and I shudder to think how many live gigs this guy has played. I’d be surprised if it is less than the Beatles, Stones and The Who – added together.
We were then treated to a joyously-arranged and lovingly sung “Can’t Take my Eyes Off You”, which was worth the ticket price alone, before the final dash through a melange of Four Seasons greatest hits. This started with a show-stopping acapella “Sherry” and included “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll” and of course “Let’s Hang On”.
It seemed to me that the venue was completely sold out – touts outside were trying to buy rather than sell – which was in contrast to the Paul Simon / Sting gig I went to at this venue recently at which, although it was extremely well patronised, the touts were flogging, not buying. And off the back of that tour, of course, Paul Simon gets to number 1 on the UK album chart with his latest ‘greatest hits’ compilation. (Note to record company; errr….?)
Tarnished memories? Wish he hadn’t bothered? Nope. Not even slightly. By excellent set pacing, the deployment of extremely skilful backing singers and a world-championship bunch of musicians, the world-eating class of Frankie Valli is still a top ticket. Go along whilst you can, and whilst he can.