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Saw Tommy James & The Shondells Last Night

Steve Haynie

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I went to a real rock and roll show! 

My concert experiences are all over the place.  There are newer bands like Palaye Royale, and there are older bands like The Glenn Miller Orchestra.  Everything good appeals to me.  Way up in the mountains of North Georgia there is Anderson Music Hall at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds where they get a variety of shows with country, rock, bluegrass, and gospel bands.  Two weeks ago it was Atlanta Rhythm Section and Pure Prairie League putting on a good show.  Last night I was there again to see Tommy James & The Shondells.  I thought I was mixing in another show like seeing those 60's groups on the Happy Together Tour or Jay and the Americans.  Instead it was a more "in your face" like a rock and roll band should be. 

There was an opening act called Radford Windham and Step Back Cadillac from Dahlonega, GA.  They did mostly covers and a couple of originals.  There were three guitars, bass, drums, and an accordion/keyboard player.  Would they be good to see opening another show?  Yes, they would. 

What got me when I walked into the music hall was just how much equipment was on stage.  Two bands worth of gear can be a little or a lot, and this looked like more than what two bands needed.  When the opener finished very little gear was cleared off the stage.  Tommy James was going to put on a show with a full band, alright! 

Before the show started some band members were checking their gear, and I noticed Greg Smith up there on stage tuning his bass.  Greg is normally Ted Nugent's bass player, but he plays with a lot of bands.  In particular, he has done a Happy Together tour as well as other 60's band tours.  That would be a lot fun when you consider how many of those pop hits had hooks in the bass lines.  (Oh, to have the credits of Joe Osborn!)  Greg has played with a lot of hard rockers, too.  Seeing him was a nice surprise.  I just wish he had stuck around talking to people after the show.

There were two keyboard players.  On on stage left there was a Hammond organ with a rotating speaker cabinet behind it.  On top of the Hammond there was a Nord keyboad.  That was played by Mike DiMeo, another sideman with impressive credits.   On the other side of the stage there were Korg and Yamaha synthesizers played by Bobby Guy (if I got the name correct).  There was one drummer, but perhaps there should have been an extra percussionist considering how many players were on stage.  Just how many guitar players does it take to put on a Tommy James show?  Hmmm... it was three in addition to Tommy. 

Johnny Golden had a Fender Strat with a HSS pickup setup going into two Marshall half stacks on stage right.  He has played with Meat Loaf, Billy Joel, and Edgar Winter among others.  I talked to him a minute or two after the show while he was packing up.  He played most of the leads during the show.  On stage left there were two guitar players with ES-335's or variants.  Behind them was another Marshall half stack and a Roland Jazz Chorus amp.  One of the two 335 players was a friend of Tommy named Caspar McCloud from Atlanta.  When I saw him I kept thinking he might be Punky Meadows with blonde hair.  He only got to do a little soloing toward the end of the show during Mony Mony/I Feel So Good.  The other guitar player was Jonathn Ashe.  (The spelling of Jonathn threw me off, too.)  For all my jokes about the show being the original Tommy James with no original Shondells, well Jonathn was there during the original run of hits. 

Tommy James came out and played a Fender Jazzmaster most of the night.  I am not sure what amp he was using.  He also played an acoustic D'Angelico guitar for the newer acoustic version of I Think We're Alone Now.  I think the other guitar players were using Taylors. 

So, now for the show. 

The volume in the PA was not too loud, but the band sounded loud.  There were no clean guitar tones unless a song needed a clean guitar tone.  This was a rock band with no hesitation about it.  Every bit of the energy that made a pop hit was there.  Tommy is 72, but did not act like it even though he made jokes about everyone being old, like after all these years everyone is still on drugs... Lipitor and Plavix.  He reminded me of Eddie Money working the room to make everyone feel like they were at his house.  There was no teleprompter.  Tommy has his act together! 

When Tommy played guitar he did some odd looking chords and used his thumb over the sixth string a lot.  It looked like he was playing in an open tuning.  With two regular guitar players backing him and another guest with him he still had his guitar out front quite a bit.  He really plays while he sings.  His voice is there, too.  Some of the singers from way back in the 80's have had to change keys or drop tunings to sing their old songs.  Tommy James is still hitting his notes after 50+ years.  With all those people on stage the backup vocals were full and harmonized, too. 

Mony Mony was lively when the band played it.  Billy Idol has his version.  Tommy James rocks it just as hard.  The audience stood up and moved with that song. 

The band is on fire.  The singer can sing.  Everyone is putting on a show.  Everything was right about this show.  It was as good as seeing ZZ Top and Cheap Trick last month.  If Tommy James & The Shondells had been in that show lineup there would be a lot of surprised people at how well the show compares.  Hiring the right people to be in your backing band makes a difference. 

After the show Tommy and Jonathn came out to the merchandise stand to meet people.  Tommy took time to talk with everyone as he signed autographs and posed for photos.  At least a couple hundred people were in the line, and every one of them were treated nicely.  While waiting for my turn, way at the back of the line, I started reading the first chapter of Tommy's autobiography.  In that chapter he wrote about learning to play guitar, and there it was!  He learned to play in an open E tuning so he could change chords with one finger... as long as they were all major chords.  He has learned how to play other chords, but he still uses that open tuning.  My guess about the open tuning was correct. 

Here is the setlist. 

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I have always loved his music and no idea they were touring. Great review. What is the name of the autobio? I need to read it.

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Mike DiMeo is a great player and a great guy! I played a bunch of gigs with him and Andy Aledort, Guitar World senior editor and long-time guitarist for Dickey Betts and Great Southern. Mike is a great singer too!

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That is awesome!  I only know the big hit singles, but I LOVE those songs ~ and as much as I dig Billy Idol, I'd argue that the original of Mony Mony rocks harder than the cover.  Yeah, I said it. :)  I don't know any of their deep cuts, though, so I'd have had no idea what to expect from their live show.

IME, these cats who've made their bones in the '60s & '70s and been consistently touring since back then really know a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to, as you say, working a room.  Things that I'm not sure many younger bands are picking up.  Seems like, for one thing, they never put everything on the studio records, always saving a little something extra for the live show.  (Case in point, I'd never have known that Dylan is a pretty good lead player if I hadn't seen him live in the late '90s).

The other thing for me is that there's something deeply … satisfying … about experiencing a stage full of real pros coming out and putting on a real show, where the musicianship is spot on and the stage presence just jumps out.  There's a work ethic there that *always* feels great to me whenever I see/hear it.  I saw the current incarnation of Styx several years ago, and while that's a band that was never going to win too many points for game-changing originality (I say that as a fan!), to see Tommy and JY just laying it down with such professionalism ~ and the rest of the band working at that same level ~ was just very gratifying.

Thanks for a great review, man!   Sounds like I'd love to see these guys if I ever get the chance!



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