Superstar singer John Waite wowed Cleveland’s Music Box Supper Club last night with a hits-laden acoustic set that was high on energy—if short on time.
The former Babys and Bad English front man was in town to promote his latest unplugged EP, Wooden Heart, share stories from throughout his prolific career, and field questions from appreciative onlookers. Accompanied only by lead guitarist Mark Ricciardi and bassist Tim Hogan, Waite was sensational, his powerhouse pipes prominent in the mix alongside Ricciardi’s sparkling string passages and Hogan’s low frequencies and subtle rhythm lines.
“It’s really great to be in Cleveland,” Waite smiled. “I’m only going to say that once!”
But Waite (who spent some time living near Northfield during his tenure with fledgling musical outfit The Boys) repeatedly gushed about his always-receptive Ohio audience, and of faithful C-Town fans and friends (like legendary rock photographer Janet Macoska, who was in attendance).
“Cleveland was the opposite of England!” Waite reflected on the swinging ‘70s.
Similar levity and mirth seasoned Waite’s between-song banter, during which he entertained the occasional query from crowd members.
“Just keep it clean!” he cautioned, twinkle in his eye.
Dapperly-dressed in a blue suit and with prodigious auburn locks waving, Waite bounded through ardent opener “More” (from 1995’s Temple Bar) and optimistic anthem “Change” (from 1982’s Ignition).
The touching “New York City Girl” described a chance encounter with a miracle mystery woman on a subway train. “The song explains itself, really,” said Waite beforehand. Ricciardi clipped a capo onto his second fret for a brighter tone on the shimmering new “Magic Camera,” whose lyrics spoke of capturing perfect little moments in time.
Waite said he has no urge to rejoin the revamped Babys, who have released material this year. “They’re doing fine without me. I was in the band for seven years. It’s in the past. I want to go forward.”
Waite strapped on a Martin acoustic guitar himself for Bad English smash “When I See You Smile.” Written by hit songstress Diane Warren, the unapologetically happy ballad sent Waite and his all-star pals (including Journey’s Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon) to the top of the charts in 1989. Here, stripped down to delicate guitar arpeggios (and sans Deen Castronovo’s arena-rock drums), the song had an even more intimate, accessible feel.
“Downtown” recalled the halcyon days (and nights) of hard living in Manhattan in the mid-‘70s, when disco fueled dance floor festivities at Studio 54, and the raw sounds of Johnny Thunders, New York Dolls, and The Ramones flooded the Bowery District.
“It was the whole ball of wax,” Waite reflected. “It was a pretty jazzy time!”
1984 solo hit “Missing You” followed, with Waite still strumming and Ricciardi pitching in on background vocals. Waite said the No Brakes track only took ten minutes to write, but made him millions of dollars.
“I was okay with that!” he laughed.
The singer said he was inspired to write “Bluebird Café” with a buddy in Nashville after coming across a vivacious Iranian waitress who dreamed of making it big in the country music capital.
“It’s about as good as I get,” surmised Waite of the arrangement.
The trio’s version of Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around” (from his 1994 album When Love Finds You) was lively and earnest. Waite recounted being a bundle of nerves when he performed the tune at the Grand Ole Opry with Alison Krauss. His anxiety level rocketed when Gill appeared and plugged in to play along with them, but the collaboration went off without a hitch—leading Waite to record it for his own Figure in a Landscape disc in 2001.
Waite accepted a homemade award from an admirer down front, sang a few lines of “Happy Birthday” for a female spectator, and shook of questions about his love life.
“I’ll never kiss and tell!” he said wryly.
“Silver Dollar” was a cowboy song about being reborn after “riding with the James Gang” (a verse that surely resonated with Cleveland’s Joe Walsh fans). Brisk, boisterous “Midnight Rendezvous” harkened back to The Baby’s 1980 effort, Union Jacks—and found the three-piece (dubbed The Axemen) rocking out hard. Encore “Head First” wrapped the café-style romp on a high note.
Waite, 63, looked healthy and sounded terrific, and we enjoyed some of the live renderings even more than their original studio counterparts. The show’s sole drawback was its brevity; Waite and his cohorts were done playing inside seventy minutes, leaving revelers to mill about the supper club’s tables and bar longer than usual. Personally, we’d have loved a singalong version of The Babys’ “Back on My Feet Again” or an acoustic “Every Time I Think of You.”
Oh well. Always leave ‘em wanting more, they say.
New York-based torch singer Leslie DiNicola warmed things up for Waite with a half hour of original music from her four releases It Resembles Fiction (2010), Draw Back Your Bow (2011), Some Greener Yard (2013), and Wake Up (2014).
Bolstered by Billy Libby’s adept guitar sleight-of-hand, DiNicola soared on “Stay” and wowed on “Wake Up.”
She dedicated the moving “It’s Alright” to a friend who lost her father (but then became a first-time mom), and said the spirited “Kiss You Free” was written for a wedding. DiNicola’s cover of Dolly Parton staple “Jolene” showed off her dynamic range, as did her decelerated interpretation of Journey’s 1983 hit “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).”
DiNicola reported writing the new “Boy and Girl” after a budding romance suddenly fizzled.
“It wasn’t a Lifetime channel movie kind of breakup,” she reflected.
“It was more like an HBO Sunday Night Movie breakup!”
Closing number “Keep Your Light” strengthened favorable comparisons (in our mind, anyway) to lounge singers, songwriters, and show-birds like Vonda Shepard, Kate Voegele, Sara Bareilles, Jewel, and Idina Menzel. DiNicola can sensually coo in lower registers, then ascend to loftier octaves (sometimes in the same measure), using vibrato and sustain to color the messages inherent in the lyrics. But we detected touches of soul and R&B, too.