Tag Archives: Pretty Ballerina

The Left Banke Brings Baroque Back to B.B. King’s Bar and Grill

1 May

Front row seats and an iPhone = Pics o’ Plenty

In 1966, a group of musicians tried something a little different. Inspired by the British Invasion and the incipient inclusion of string instruments in rock n’ roll songs, The Left Banke, under the auspices of writer/keyboardist Michael Brown’s father Harry Lookofsky (a session violinist who ran a studio and became interested in the band’s sound) sold a piece composed by Brown called “Walk Away Renee” to Smash Records. It didn’t take long before the song became a hit, disseminating this creative new style to several of their contemporaries who observed this string-laden rock and tried it out for themselves. The song features a noticeable string section, harpsichord, and a flute solo (inspired by the Mamas and Papas “California Dreamin”). The music was inspirational, ethereal, melodic, but most importantly different and refreshing. It is pre-progressive rock and pre-psychedelic. And what’s so freaky is that the band members were teens. Now, 46 years after the song’s release, the Left Banke are back, and last weekend I was fortunate enough to see them reunite and play B.B. King’s Bar and Grill in New York City.

I want to focus this post not on the history of this underappreciated band, but on the concert which featured a revitalized and excited Tom Finn, George Cameron, and, in place of Steve Caro, killer vocalist and guitar Mike Fornatale. Current members also include Paul Alves – Guitar, Charly Cazalet – Bass, Mickey Finn – Keyboards,  Rick Reil – Drums / Vocals.

The Left Banke was joined by opening act Alan Merrill who too was a trend-setter. The Bronx-born son of jazz musicians became the first westerner to achieve pop star status in Japan. He actually tried out for the Left Banke in 1968 and while the audition was successful the band dissolved. He moved to Japan and tried to start a career there which faced some initial stumbling blocks but eventually became extremely successful and he was boosted into teen idol status. This was all before he co-wrote and released the first version of internationally recognized mega-hit “I Love Rock n’ Roll” which you all know to be by Joan Jett. His set was short but his three-person band (including himself) performed up-beat rock beats with Merrill soloing on his electric. And, as expected, at the sound of “I Love Rock n’ Roll” everyone perked up and started singing along because it is actually impossible not to sing that chorus.

Alan Merrill

The Left Banke walked onto stage soon after. Well, actually all of them but one; Tom Finn was somewhere on the main floor. The band shared a great laugh with the crowd before Finn climbed on stage, plugged in, and assured the crowd that it got better. Finn looked at Cameron and the band, counted down, and they were off, performing track two on side one of their seminal album Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina. “She May Call You Up Tonight,” a Brown and Caro composition, sparked immediate harmonies that showed no rust.

The Left Banke concentrated on meticulously perfected harmonies and I’m sure they would have been disappointed if the melody was off, but, they were even more on than I thought they would have been. Fornatale’s excellent voice certainly helped, but I give Finn and Cameron credit for successfully jumping right into mid-60s form. If you closed your eyes (and ignored the difference in lead vocalist) you were transported back to youthful smiles and moptops.

I’ve discussed “Pretty Ballerina” before on this blog. This has been a song that my father (who also attended the concert with my girlfriend and me) and I have talked about at length. There is something so eerie and depressing, but surreptitiously beautiful about this Brown composition. It is dream-like (understandably when you look at the lyric) and repetitive. It is that piano repetition that gets you.

And wouldn’t you know it, the man himself, Michael Brown, joined The Left Banke to play his trademark keyboard riff. When he walked on stage he received a warm standing ovation from the crowd who more than appreciated his appearance and, he jumped right into the riff like never missed a beat. He never did miss a beat. I will say it now. I have said it many times. “Pretty Ballerina” was one of the most creative and influential songs written in the 1960s and it is a shame more do not know of it.

Michael Brown doing what he does best.

The Left Banke played 23 songs during the show and sampled from their first two albums and other catalog material. Songs like “Barterers and their Wives,” “Shadows Breaking Over My Head,” and the Finn-creation “Nice To See You” received some of the most applause. For one man sitting a few tables down for me, “Bryant Hotel,” sung by George Cameron, was the absolute highlight of his night. It’s a great song, but he was practically begging for it.

The show also featured a talented two-person string section of violinist Lynn Bechtold and cellist Ben Larsen who provided the refreshing strings to most of the pieces.

Like all good things, the concert did come to a close, but I learned a few things. First off, The Left Banke is creating new material and make sure to keep in tune with their Facebook for more information.  You can also check out their website and a great fan page.

Mainly, though, I learned that the Left Banke should be higher regarded in 60’s music history books. Despite the band’s limited releases, their influence on several baroque pop bands that came into popularity in the early 70s cannot be overstated. They grandfathered that movement and were a gigantic influence on progressive rock.

The Left Banke Ask Renee To Walk Away Again

22 Feb

Yesterday I mentioned the Left Banke in my brief discussion of bands who inspired progressive rock. Today, I not only want to explore this statement a little further, but also I want to share some excellent news. Let’s begin with some history of one of the pioneers of progressive rock.

Baroque Pop hit its mainstream success in the latter-half of the 1960s and bands like The Beatles, The Zombies and The Beach Boys sampled its fusion of pop and classical music. But one of the originators of this style of music, The Left Banke, also played it like no other. The genre in itself demarcated a different style of music that would become increasingly popular after the psychedelic movement met its mainstream end.

Progressive rock, a genre of music defined by (as I said yesterday) “creative arrangements, unusual blends of genres (like Jazz/Rock), eclectic (almost baroque) instrumentation, and classical constructions,” was clearly engendered by the promotion of baroque pop (among other things), and when The Left Banke, a band formed in New York in 1965, released “Walk Away Renee,” but more so “Pretty Ballerina” in 1966, a true pre-prog-rock staple was introduced.

The Left Banke’s founding roster included Michael Brown (keyboard, songwriter), George Cameron (guitarist), Tom Finn (bass), Warren David-Schierhorst (drums), and vocalist Steve Martin Caro. After some initial recordings David-Schierhorst was removed, Cameron switched to drums, and Jeff Winfield was brought in to play  guitar.

“Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” were released in 1966 in July and December, respectively. The song was written by Michael Brown (who was 16 at the time, by the way), and was written about Tom Finn’s girlfriend, who Brown was enamored with. Good thing for all. See “Layla” for another ‘I want your girl’ song that turned out to be successful. It was a huge success.  It spent 13 weeks on the charts with a top spot at #5 and several artists have covered it.

We will talk about “Pretty Ballerina” in a second. Why did The Left Banke not go on to achieve tremendous success. Well, first off, I think their music would have succeeded more in the later 1960s and early 1970s. They were bellwethers and sometimes those individuals who lead get ultimately forgotten. Also, there were some serious internal issues that ripped apart the band. Brown recorded a single without the band while using the band’s name The Left Banke. He used session musicians with Bert Sommer on lead vocals. The band legitimately split into two Left Banke’s. The radio stations were confused and pulled the song. In 1967 the band reunited and recorded some more material, but, Brown left the band soon after. The band (Cameron, Martin, Finn) moved on, brought in Emmett Lake, and recorded their second LP (some songs featured a young Steven Tyler doing background vocals).

This, my friends, is “Pretty Ballerina,” a song written by Brown, sung by Martin, and is also about Finn’s girlfriend. Man, this young dude was obsessed. Talented guy obsessed with a girl. Heard it before and will hear it again.

First off, it is clearly of baroque sentiments. The strung-out strings, rhythmic keyboard, and orchestral core (with Oboe!) help make this song what it is. It is beautiful. It is subtle, simple, and Martin’s voice is ethereal and heavenly. But there is something else in this song below the surface. While it is superficially happy, I always feel weird listening to the song. Its short length, repetitiveness, and dream-like quality, almost suggest something oddly dark in it. It’s just a strange feeling and I get that it may be sparked by the esoteric nature of the song. It is my favorite from the band and one that still is original and independent today.

Now for the Good News:

George Cameron and Tom Finn reunited for two shows at Joe’s Pub in New York City in March of 2011 and have announced that they have reformed the group. The group consists of Cameron, Finn, and other musicians. How cool!. They will be performing at BB Kings Bar and Grill in NY on April 29. They will then perform two shows in Maryland (Rockville – Parilla Performing Arts Center on May 5, and Annapolis – Rams Head on Stage on May 6.)

Considering my location (NY), I will be attending the BB Kings show and I’m exciting to see two 60s legends perform on stage. If you plan on attending the show, let me know, and we will share some drinks and enjoy some quality music.

Check out The Left Banke’s official website for information on the band and the shows: www.leftbankeband.com

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