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Lovin’ Spoonful Daydreams Come True as John Sebastian Goes All-In for Tribute Show

A reunion of three original members was just part of an epic L.A. show that also had Sebastian acting as a sideman to guest artists.

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Chris Willman / Variety

“I’m a happy idiot. What can I tell you?”

This was John Sebastian, leaving the Alex Theatre in Glendale early Sunday morning after an epic Lovin’ Spoonful tribute show that lasted four hours, with the hall’s overtime fees accumulating as the group’s mostly reunited lineup got in one last “Daydream” right after the midnight hour. No one was about to pull the plug on the Spoonful, as this was the first time the surviving original members had performed together since their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction 20 years ago… and for all anyone knows, it could be the last. If it took two decades to get them together again, no one was going to pull the plug on one last Sebastian whistling solo as former bandmates Steve Boone and Joe Butler played and sang along.

Hitting the exit around 1 a.m., Sebastian, seemed energized, not enervated, by four hours of performance and four days of rehearsal in which his life might have seemed to pass before his eyes — or three years’ worth of his life, anyway, since 36 of the 39 songs performed came from the brief 1965-67 period in which he was at the helm of the Lovin’ Spoonful. (Three early solo-period songs, including “Welcome Back,” completed the setlist.) What was remarkable was that, even though it’d only been planned for the Spoonful members to perform a few songs during the show, Sebastian sat in for the better part of the four hours as a sideman, recreating his intricate finger-picking parts or blowing a loud blues harmonica behind much of the parade of guest performers. Fifty-five years after he became a pop star, it was clear Sebastian is a guy who loves music — and musicians — possibly even more than the revered-as-a-visiting-god part that comes with the territory.

“It did kind of go the way I expected,” Sebastian said after the show. “I had tremendous confidence that, once you have me and Steve Boone, it’s very hard to shake us loose.” Butler has physical issues that keep him from being playing the drum kit anymore, so his contributions as a rhythm section member were limited to isolated percussion. But, as Sebastian pointed out in a Variety Q&A preceding the gig, “Joe, man, he sings all of those songs in the original keys, which I haven’t been able to do for 30 years” — and in fact, he’s done that on a regular basis, as the frontman for a post-Sebastian touring version of the Lovin’ Spoonful. So in deference to those shops Butler was afforded a few lead vocal duties of his own, including taking charge of the band’s biggest hit, “Summer in the City.”

But Sebastian seemed as happy about the veritable cast of thousands on stage as the reunion part of the show (which he’s said can’t really count as the Lovin’ Spoonful in his mind without lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky, who died in 2002 and was cited several times during the show). “Having these wonderful 40 pieces was remarkable,” he said — 40 pieces spread across 39 songs. “Remember, the Spoonful has never had anything like this. We’re happy when anybody says, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do four or five of your big hits.'”

That included a lot of songs that probably haven’t been performed by any of the original members since 1967… or ever. Was it safe to say that Sebastian had never played “Lonely,” an instrumental written and performed for the early Francis Ford Coppola film “You’re a Big Boy Now,” with an actual orchestra since the original recording session “That’s correct,” he laughed, as if the idea would have been unthinkable. “Never, never, never.”

The show began as it ended, with just Sebastian, Butler and Boone on stage. The final number was “Daydream,” but the opener was no barn-burning top 40 hit — it was Mississippi John Hurt’s “Coffee Blues,” the lyrics of which gave the group its name. That lent the not-a-reunion “get-together” a great deal of sentimental value, but Sebastian didn’t take credit, saying of the sweet bookending, “Rob is really responsible for a lot of the good ideas that this show incorporated,” referring to Rob Laufer, the music director for the Wild Honey organization’s annual benefits for autism charities.

The scores of musicians and organizers taking part in the gig were at least as deep in their own happy idiocy. The annual Wild Honey shows are booked whether or not any of the tributees are going to show up, usually with little idea of that until after tickets have already gone on sale. Brian Wilson took part in an early Beach Boys salute in the ’90s, and Al Jardine joined in a follow-up in 2016. Three years ago, Garth Hudson did some epic soloing at a Band salute that musicians still talk about in hushed tones. Two years ago Richie Furay set the bar high by coming and taking about a half-hour’s worth of lead vocals at a Buffalo Springfield salute. In 2019, at a Kinks-themed show, there were no Kinks— which was no problem. When Wild Honey founder Paul Rock put tickets on sale for this Lovin’ Spoonful show, none of the three had confirmed. That they would enthusiastically reunite for only the third time in 52 years seemed beyond reach — but Rock’s phone call telling Sebastian that they’d be happy if they could fly him in to do nothing more than play harmonica on “Night Owl Blues” succeeded as a sales job where offers of actual financial renumeration had not in the past.

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Chris WIllman / Variety

The gravy, beyond the (oh, let’s call it a) reunion, was in Sebastian’s eagerness to actually join the band… as well as to be raconteur enough that he could have been named co-host alongside the actual emcee, veteran music industry figure Pat Thomas. Among other peak highlights Sebastian did play harmonica on the instrumental “Night Owl Blues,” sharing the spotlight in a duel with Dave Alvin on guitar.

“He was also the first guy I ever heard play electric blues harmonica,” said the former Blaster of Sebastian, whose bona fides as a roots-oriented musician didn’t always get paramount attention amid the top 10 hits. “I was 9 years old a few miles away from here when I saw my first rock ‘n’ roll show ever, at the Rose Bowl. And it was Herman’s Hermits…” Alvin shook his palm from side to side in a gesture of “just so-so.” “East L.A. Midnighters. It was the Turtles. And then it got really good.” (“I was there!” screamed a woman in the audience.) “Next it was the Bobby Fuller Four. And the other act was the Lovin’ Spoonful. You gave me my first rock ‘n’ roll show — so thank you for giving me my life.”

The bill was full of slightly-next-generation artists, with Sebastian clearly a fan of many of them, unlike some of his more cloistered ’60s contemporaries. “You sure picked the right person for this,” he said of the Textones’ Carla Olson, with whom he made a duet, more or less, out of the country-flavored “Stories We Could Tell.” The late-’70s-forward figure he was clearly most delighted to be in the company of, though, was the Cars’ Elliot Easton (as promised in Sebastian’s Variety interview) — someone whose not-so-exposed country-folk finger-picking skills made him an ideal sparring partner for Sebastian on vintage songs that had once matched him with the late Yanovsky.

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Chris Willman / Variety

One show highlight had Sebastian and Easton enjoying an all-out picking bromance on either side of the singer Eleni Mandell as she turned “Fishin’ Blues,” the first song off the first Lovin’ Spoonful album, into something it’d probably never been before: a sexy vamp.

Actual ’60s contemporaries of the Spoonful were in shorter supply, but with a few notable exceptions: The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz had his way with “Daydream” before Sebastian and bandmates reprised it as their acoustic encore. Moby Grape’s Peter Lewis sang one of the few songs not written by Sebastian — “Other Side of This Life,” a Fred Neil composition also covered by Jefferson Airplane. Claudia Linnear, a backup singer brought to the fore in the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” and clearly one of Sebastian’s favorite people, took on another cover-of-a-cover, “You Baby,” recorded by the Ronettes before the Spoonful got to it. It was Sebastian’s idea going into rehearsals that they should work up something closer to the Phil Spector recording than his. “Man, you inhabit Ronnie Bennett for me,” he told her before they launched into the tune.

Sebastian did cut himself some breaks during the four hours, and there were plenty more highlights in his absence. For all the country and blues influences that came to the fore, there were also some delightful moments of pure garage-rock, like Nick Guzman’s reading of “There She Is,” with the Muffs’ Ronnie Barnett and Roy McDonald as the rhythm section. Peter Case and Olson also went thrashy with a duet of the taunting “4 Eyes.” Inestimable music director Rob Laufer gave himself a prize for his hard work — “Darling Be Home Soon” — and showed he’d earned it. (He talked about how Elliott had said he wanted to participate in the show just to add the one-note rhythm guitar part, but Elliott was backstage doing an interview and didn’t show up till halfway through the song, hurriedly picking up the guitar stand with his guitar as he leaped to the stage.) Mark Eitzel turned the reluctant breakup ballad “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” into the stuff of actual near-tragedy. More comically, Cindy Lee Berryhill was unforgettably accompanied on “Money” by a line of three banjo pickers — plus drummer Jim Laspesa moving up front, wearing a hat with “press” in the brim, to add percussion in the form of an undervalued rock ‘n’ roll instrument, the manual typewriter.

Susan Cowsill (“You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”) was the one person on stage of a unique age and career to be counted as next-generation and as a fellow ’60s pop veteran. Or maybe so did Bill Mumy, of “Twilight Zone” fame, who, when Easton was again slightly tardy to the stage for his part, joked that he was afraid the guitarist had “gone to the cornfield.” Others ably taking a few minutes in the spotlight included Marshall Crenshaw, Marti Jones with husband Don Dixon, Steve Stanley, Kathy McCarty (“I have two and a half minutes to make you love me,” she announced before “Younger Generation,” and she did), the Smithereens’ Dennis Diken (who wrote liner notes for a Spoonful reissue), Fairport Convention’s Iain Matthews and Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh and David Goodstein. A few actual bands got their turn, in the form of the all-female band Wednesday Week, country harmonizing trio Dead Rock West, and the Three O’Clock — the latter joined by vocalist Darian Sahanaja, who proclaimed himself as big a teenaged fan of the O’Clock as they were of the Spoonful.

An actual Nashvillian was brought in to perform “Nashville Cats”: Bill Lloyd — whose credentials included not just that he’s a renowned Tennessee singer and picker, but that he used to work at the Country Music Hall of Fame and helped interview session players for the exhibit that was named after that song a few years ago. Dramarama’s John Easdale drew what was either the short straw or long straw, depending on your thinking, with what was perhaps the most cult-pleasingly unexpected choice of the night, “Pow!,” from the “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” soundtrack. Carnie Wilson and husband Rob Bonfiglio got one of the climactic slots, a position befitting her royalty in these Beach Boy-worshipping circles, with a signature good-vibey Spoonful hit, “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”

That the Wild Honey benefits feel like a family gathering every year was underscored by a series of dedications to past participants. Muffs members Barnett and McDonald came out at the top to pay tribute to late frontwoman Kim Shattuck. Sahanaja told stories about Nicky Wonder, the guitarist who died on the eve of a recent Brian Wilson tour. The loss felt perhaps most widely across the Alex was that of Gary Stewart, who was last seen by many attendees at the Kinks tribute a year ago. On a list of reasons to live another year, as best one can, these annual tribal gatherings rank.

Lovin’ Spoonful Daydreams Come True as John Sebastian Goes All-In for Tribute Show

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