I Dig Rock And Roll Music, a retrospective honoring the rise of folk-rock during the 1960s and ’70s, is promoted as a sequel to the highly regarded Lonesome Traveler, which celebrated the music of Woody Guthrie and his folk music disciples, which led to the urban folk boom of the ’50s and ’60s. The show concludes its world premiere run at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura September 16.
The title comes from Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1967 hit single, which poked good-natured fun at ’60s hitmakers like Donovan, the Beatles, and the Mamas and the Papas. Three holdovers from Lonesome Traveler return for the show: Sylvie Davidson, Trevor Wheetman (who sings the show’s title number), and Brendan Willing James, who are joined by keyboardist Chris Lash, drummer Matt Tucci, and singer Caitlin Ary. Cassidy Craig substituted for Ary on the night we attended the performance.
For those who lived through the era depicted in the show, it was a time for the emergence of a dazzling array of uber-talented singer-songwriters, including Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens, who toggled between self-exploration and political protest songs in reshaping the American musical landscape, which was just coming out of its British Invasion period.
The instigators of the British Invasion, the Beatles, are represented in two medleys that kick off each half of the concert, featuring brief versions of some of the bigger hits of the era, including the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and the 5th Dimension’s “Let the Sun Shine In.” It was good to hear the lovely harmonies of the Association’s “Cherish,” a huge hit from 1967 that is rarely performed today. The second medley features instrumental versions of classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” in recognizing a time when non-vocal singles actually contended for sales and chart action.
If the concert consisted solely of these medleys, it would have been just another nostalgia sitz bath, but fortunately, the show’s creative team of George Grove, Lonesome Traveler director James O’Neil, and Dan Wheetman endeavored to make a connection between the songs of old and some new creations by the cast, making it relevant to today’s audiences, implying a continuity of individual expression and inspired songwriting, linking the current events of today with those of yesterday.
The six-person band is versatile in not only their instrumental prowess (all but drummer Tucci play multiple instruments) but the varying styles and moods presented during the concert, which are accented by projected images that give the songs context and additional meaning. Occasionally, the images are deliberately anachronistic, such as when Cat Stevens’ 1971 hit “Peace Train” is performed, accompanied by images of protestors of the 1990 war in Iraq, showing that such songs can still be relevant in successive eras.
With respect to the abilities of the rest of the band, Sylvie Davidson emerges as the show’s standout performer, charismatic, attractive, and superbly talented. Each of her solo turns mesmerized the audience, beginning with Pete Seeger’s musicalized adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which was turned into a folk-rock hit by the Byrds. Davidson’s version is acoustically performed in a style to which Seeger himself would have nodded his head in admiration, sung with a sweet, bird-like soprano that brings to mind a young Joan Baez. Even more enchanting is her gently wistful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” again choosing a more intimate, acoustic treatment than the folk-rock version by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. When she sings I dreamed I saw the bombers / Riding shotgun in the sky /And they were turning into butterflies / Above our nation, she dwells luxuriously on the word “butterflies” in a way where one would not be surprised if she floated off the stage and out of the theater. When she finished, there was a hush in the audience followed by a burst of applause. Trevor Wheetman, who met and married Davidson during the original run of Lonesome Traveler, sheepishly approached the mike and muttered, “I didn’t want to have to follow that,” receiving laughs of agreement and rousing applause from the audience. He proceeded to perform an equally sensitive version of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” amplifying the song’s metaphorical lyrics paying tribute to the civil rights movement.
In addition to outstanding versions of songs like Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” and Neil Young’s “Ohio” (accompanied by indelible images of the Kent State Massacre of 1970 and Vietnam War protests), the cast provides original compositions that comment on today’s hot-button issues. Included among these are “Cant Stop That Train” by Davidson, “Love Is Love” by Lash, and “The Water’s Rising” by James, but the best by far is Wheetman’s chilling “Dangerous Clown,” a devastating indictment of Donald Trump, accompanied by a propulsive shuffling back beat that brought to mind the Beatles’ “Get Back,” in which Wheetman sings:
Well now things are gonna get strange
Cause I’ve got your permission
To rule the world
Grab any girl
I’m gonna ruin this town
Here comes the dangerous clown
Conspicuously missing during the show are any songs by Bob Dylan, the founding father of folk-rock (the result of permission issues?), and a paucity of music by black singer-songwriters from the period. In fact, the only songs made popular by black artists during the show are Edwin Starr’s “War” (sadly relegated to a brief entry in one of the medleys), Roberta Flack’s version of Ewan MacColl’s love song, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and two Otis Redding compositions, “Respect” and “(Sittin on the) Dock of the Bay.” It would have been nice to have heard such incendiary songs as the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” or the Supremes’ “Love Child,” both of which took on burning social issues of the day.
I Dig Rock and Roll Music is much more than just a live version of one of those K-Tel CD collections you’d see promoted ad nauseam on cable TV. It tells the story of how pop music was shaped and inspired by events that went on in the world a half century ago, and how points of view of songwriters overcame the restrictions of commercialism inherent in the record industry to make a statement on who we were and where we were going in those heady days. To that we say, right on.
I Dig Rock and Roll Music concludes its run at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura on Sunday, September 16. For tickets, visit http://www.rubicontheatre.org/event/595ae48787fb8b72cd54999d6ce28dba
The show moves to the Laguna Playhouse from September 19-23.