When The Beatles broke up in early 1970, you would have thought they had committed the ultimate crime against humanity. The reaction of fans and pop music critics ranged from profound sadness to borderline apoplexy. After a few years of contentious in-fighting—during which time they produced some of their most iconic songs—the “Fab Four” called it quits and immediately pursued careers as solo artists. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Paul McCartney was primarily responsible for the split, so while John Lennon’s first two efforts (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Bandand Imagine) were favorably reviewed, Paul’s initial solo releases, especially the second album RAM (produced with his new wife Linda), were blasted, not only by critics, but by the other former Beatles.
Rolling Stone’s chief rock critic Jon Landau ripped RAM as “incredibly inconsequential,” “monumentally irrelevant,” and “emotionally vacuous.” Robert Christgau of The Village Voice called RAM “A classic form/content mismatch . . . a style of music meant to be soft and whimsical.” Former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr observed, “I don’t think there’s one good tune on RAM,” while Lennon dismissed the disc as “Muzak to my ears.” Ouch.
In 2012, 41 years after its initial release, RAM was reissued and a new generation of music aficionados offered more glowing assessments. “RAM sounds quintessentially McCartney,” wrote one. Another observed: “In retrospect, it’s like nothing so much as the first indie pop album, a record that celebrates small pleasures with big melodies.” Even Rolling Stone came around on RAM, with reviewer Simon Vozick-Levinson dubbing it “A daffy masterpiece” and “a grand psychedelic ramble of divine melodies and orchestral frippery.”
Such an observation could aptly describe the passionate and pulsating tribute to McCartney’s long underrated and underappreciated second solo album, recently presented by the local band Murderer’s Row at The Cutting Room. This uber-talented 12-person lineup (including three powerful women vocalists in the heart of the order) offered more a faithful homage than a revisionist reinterpretation and, like the 1927 New York Yankees (baseball’s original “Murderer’s Row”) knocked every one of RAM’s 11 original cuts plus two from the 2012 reissues (and four additional vintage McCartney tunes) out of the park.
In the talent-saturated New York metro area there are hundreds of bands and thousands of musicians playing quaint outer borough rooms like Barbès in Park Slope, Brooklyn to Joe’s Pub in Manhattan’s NOHO. Some have small but loyal followings, but haven’t broken through in a way that generates larger audiences. With their recent show in The Cutting Room, Murderer’s Row (MR) should ram their way into the rock band big leagues.
The group is stocked with terrific veteran musicians and vocalists (a few front their own bands using various members of MR), many of whom shared the spotlight in the RAM show, their fourth tribute to the album since first performing it at the East Village’s Bowery Electric in 2015. Since then, MR has presented a veritable All-Star team of tributes, including homages to Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, and Led Zepplin. But RAM has become MR’s signature show. If, like me, you’re a Baby Boomer who as a teenager dismissed this disc, MR’s tight, energetic, and melodic execution will allow you to appreciate anew McCartney’s eclectic mix of pop/rock tunes that incorporate elements of classic country and blues and that lyrically reflect his depression and bitterness over the Beatles’ breakup, but also his new sense of serenity after his marriage to Linda.
Although the entire band led by Musical Director and lead keyboard player Charly Roth shined, the standouts at The Cutting Room gig were Lizzie Edwards, Mike Fornatale, and Dave Foster. Edwards, credited as the show’s producer and who fronts a band called Lizzie and the Makers, rocked the lead vocal on “3 Legs” (long considered a dig at Lennon and the other Beatles) and “Maybe I’m Amazed” (from the 1970 McCartney album), but she positively blew the roof off with Joplin-esque power on “Long-Haired Lady” (the ending of which is reminiscent of “Hey Jude’s” la-la-las) and “Oh Woman, Oh Why” (featuring Benny Landa on lap steel guitar), which was added to RAM for the 2012 reissue.
A mainstay of many local rock bands over the past couple of decades, Fornatale is a 1960s throwback who is a kick-ass electric guitarist and when necessary can channel Joe Cocker’s raspy growl. He sounded more like Lennon than McCartney on the show’s opener “Too Many People” (with Landa solid on lead guitar). On “Monkberry Moon Delight,” he attacked McCartney’s playfully surrealistic lyrics like Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. But Fornatale’s tour-de-force came on RAM’s only Top-10 hit, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” where he not only ranged from bass to falsetto in the multi-layered tune, but also vocalized all the song’s wacky sound effects. The entire audience energetically chimed in on the “Hands across the water . . . Hands across the sky” chorus.
Guitarist Dave Foster, who for 25 years has been a founding member of the group Bubble and the recently formed Gershwin Brothers, took the lead vocal on “Ram On” while delightfully strumming a ukulele. Edwards, Rembert Block, Erica Smith, and keyboard player Mary Knapp provided luscious harmonies on backup vocals, as they did the entire set. Later, Foster was solid on guitar and lead vocal on “Smile Away” (with Jeff Hudgins standing out on sax) and “Another Day,” which was also added to the 2012 RAM reissue.
Besides Lizzie Edwards, the band’s three other ladies produced highlights of their own. Erica Smith (who also sings with Foster’s Gershwin Brothers) was lovingly tender on “Dear Boy,” one of the five songs credited as co-written by Linda McCartney and the closest tune to a ballad on RAM. Smith was sensually soulful on the album’s last cut, “Backseat of My Car,” with Foster on uke and sharing vocals. Rembert Block, who also sings in Bubble, The Gershwin Brothers, and fronts her own band Rembert and the Basic Goodness, was a perfect vocal fit for “Heart of the Country,” delivering the lyric like a smooth Kentucky bourbon and with a neat rockabilly be-bop scat. During the post-RAM extras, Mary Knapp (who, naturally, leads her own band called Toot Sweet) came out from behind supporting keyboards to belt Grace Slick-like on “Let Me Roll It” from the 1973 Paul McCartney and Wings Band On The Run album.
A show such as this, of course, wouldn’t be complete without at least one classic Beatles song (especially with so many Boomers in the band) and Fornatale had the entire Cutting Room seeming to “dance through the night” on “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Great show. Ram On, Murderer’s Row.
Photo Credit: Stephen Hanks
Top: Left to right—Benny Landa, Javier Ramos, Dave Foster, Mike Fornatale, Lizzie Edwards, Rembert Block, Erica Smith, Jeff Hudgins, Charly Roth. Not pictured: Mary Knapp, Tom Shad, Tommy DeVito
Title: Murderer’s Row Present Paul and Linda McCartney’s RAM
Featuring: Lizzie Edwards (Producer, Vocals), Charly Roth (Musical Director, Keyboards), Mike Fornatale (Electric Guitar, Vocals), Rembert Block (Vocals), Erica Smith (Vocals), Mary Knapp (Keyboards, Vocals), Dave Foster (Acoustic Guitar, Vocals), Benny Landa (Lead Guitar), Tom Shad (Bass Guitar), Tommy DeVito (Drums), Javier Ramos (Percussion), Jeff Hudgins (Saxophone)
The Cutting Room
44 E 32nd St
New York, New York
Sunday, September 15, 2019