The disclaimers were there. “I turned 68 a couple weeks ago on December 31.” “I think I’ve just come down with a little something.” There would have been a couple of legitimate excuses if Burton Cummings couldn’t deliver a top notch performance on Friday night, January 22, 2016 at the Ovations LIVE! Showroom at the Wild Horse Pass Casino in Chandler. But he (and the audience) would not be denied. Cummings delivered an outstanding 105 minute show without letting age or a pesky virus get in his way.
It had been forever since Cummings had come to the Phoenix area. Perhaps because of that, Cummings picked a set list that was heavy on Guess Who and solo artist hits rather than draw from deep cuts off his eight solo albums of new material. It was a wise choice. Although it wasn’t an audience of get up and dance to every number, there was plenty of in seat head bobbing and lip-syncing.
The night started off with the familiar. Cummings’ band, comprised of the Carpet Frogs’, Nick Sinopoli on vocals and percussion, Jeff Jones on bass, Michael Zweig on guitar and Sean Fitzsimmons on drums, plus guitarist Tim Bovaconti, got the crowd going with the opening stanzas of “No Sugar Tonight” before Cummings came out on stage and joined them. Seated behind his piano, Cummings sang out “lonely feeling, deep inside,” and suddenly it was 1970 again (well, if 1970 had cell phones to record the moment.)
More Guess Who hits followed, “Hand Me Down World,” “Clap for the Wolfman,” “Laughing.” Each song was introduced with a little background from Cummings while his vocals brought the audience back to the times they first heard the song. Although Cummings may not attempt to go as high in range as he once did, he has found the ideal spot for his voice. Despite most of the crowd being subdued during the songs, they loudly applauded each effort.
The first test of the evening was “Undun.” As Cummings was handed an out of tune flute, there were questions whether he could get it in tune (he did) and whether his virus would rob him of the ability to play it (it didn’t). Adversity may have inspired Cummings as it was his best vocal, so far, of the night.
A little self-indulgence followed, as Cummings let the band leave the stage and it was just him and his piano for “Mack the Knife.” Although you think of Cummings as a vocalist first, it was becoming more and more noticeable that Cummings is a damn fine pianist as well.
The band returned for the powerful “Stand Tall,” Cummings’ biggest solo artist hit in the United States. Bovaconti fired off a nice guitar solo and just as subtly as it was to discover Cummings’ talent as an instrumentalist, so was it to discover that his band contained virtuoso musicians as well. It’s easy to overlook them with Cummings’ stage presence, but a good band can play in the shadows (which is sometimes tougher) as well as shine in the spotlight.
It was a full band effort for “Baby Come Back,” taken from Cummings’ 2007 collaboration with former Guess Who member Randy Bachman. Everyone on stage appeared to be having a great time. The feeling spilled into the audience.
According to Cummings, it only took him and Bachman a half hour to create the song “These Eyes.” Certainly it was one of the most productive thirty minutes of songwriting ever which resulted in a number six listing on the United States Billboard Hot 100 chart and Cummings’ best vocals of the night.
It being “one of the two rock and roll nights of the week,” Cummings and band let loose on the honky-tonk rocker, “Albert Flasher” and the infectious “Star Breaker.” A few people finally got up and danced and many were swaying back and forth in their seats.
No classic rock performer worth their salt could let the recent deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey go without notice and Cummings did his part to honor both artists. Bowie’s death made Cummings’ rendition of “Glamour Boy,” even more poignant. Originally penned by Cummings back in 1973 as a jab to Bowie and his ‘glam rock” appearance, the words now worked as a tribute to that time of Bowie’s career.
Cummings showed off a little of his piano playing ability (how often to you get to hear the “Theme From Exodus”) before launching into a multi-song mashup that served as the introduction to “American Woman.” And once the band launched into “American Woman,” even those that had stayed seated all night, rose from their seats. With Zweig and Bovaconti wailing away on their guitars, Fitzsimmons pounding away on his drums and Jones deftly working his bass, the band was all smiles, despite the fact they have probably played the song a million times.
“No Time,” almost seemed anticlimactic to end the main set but it would have been a sin to omit this classic from the set list. The harmonies of the song were tight as Cummings took to guitar for the number.
The night concluded with the encore “Share the Land.” Again the band and Cummings were on the top of their game with both their vocals and musicianship. Cummings’ opening vocals gave rise to goosebumps, so close as they were to the original recording.
For Cummings, it was 54 years ago when he was in his first band. He has managed to pen a lot of hits and sing even more of them during that time period. Thankfully he is still sharing his ability with his fans. An ability that remains undaunted be it by age or sickness.
Set list: No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature | Hand Me Down World | Clap For The Wolfman | Laughing | Undun | Mack The Knife | Stand Tall | Baby Come Back | These Eyes | Albert Flasher |Star Breaker | Glamor Boy | Piano Solo | American Woman (with lengthy intro) | No Time | Encore: Share The Land