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The Left Banke

by Paul Rapp on August 24, 2011

BEARSVILLE THEATER, AUG. 20

In the annals of band trainwrecks, few tales are sadder than that of the Left Banke. Back-to-back hits in 1966, abortive tours, treachery and angry lawyers in 1967; by early 1969, before any of the band members had reached the age of 20, the Left Banke were done. The smattering of articles and interviews on the web indicates that the various members have all lived marginal musical lives since then, always in the shadows of two of the most hauntingly beautiful singles every to grace the airwaves: “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina.” And left to wallow in obscurity were two albums worth of inventive, baroque pop.

Until now. Two of the original members, Tom Finn and George Cameron, have teamed up with a bunch of NYC musos to recreate the studio masterpieces from those two albums. Saturday was their fourth show, and it was glorious.

Make no mistake—this was not some goofy oldies show. This was a performance of repertoire, similar to the recent Brian Wilson tours, where Wilson’s dense studio creations are treated as compositions rather than pop songs and are recreated with loving and curatorial care. Not that it didn’t rock. Powered by the Gripweed’s Kurt Reil on drums, the 10-piece band brought modern-rock heft to the songs, while the two string players and two keyboardists (including downtown rock maven Joe McGinty) supplied the classical flourishes that the Left Banke pioneered back in the day.

A considerable part of the show rode on the shoulders of vocalist Mike Fornatele, who was, in a word, spectacular. He handled the often-serpentine melodies with ease, grace, and authority. And Fornatele added a bit of understated-yet-awesome old-school rockstar presence to the proceedings. I mean, when was the last time you marveled at somebody’s tambourine wrangling?

Original members Finn and Cameron added the rich, complex harmonies, occasional lead vocals, and between-song patter that was at once knowing, self-deprecating, touching, and fall-down funny. All in all, the show revealed in-spades how the Left Banke, in their short and fragmented existence, somehow managed to create a body of work that employed sounds, structures, and mannerisms that influenced and would be echoed by groups like 10cc, XTC, Queen, Oasis, R.E.M., and even (dare I say it? Yes, I do!) the Beatles.

And Saturday’s show had one element that I’m sure the band’s ’60’s shows never had: unrestrained joy. Everybody on stage was beaming for the entire show.

There was mention of maybe a new album of new material. Here’s hoping that first they capture this live show and release it. I wanna relive what I experienced Saturday night over and over and over again.