When somebody told me that the great 1970s band Three Dog Night was performing with the Buffalo Philharmonic, my reaction could be summed up in one word: “Huh?”
Three Dog Night was one of the best bands of the ’70s, and yes, I’ve always been a big fan of their music, but … Three Dog Night with a symphony orchestra?
How do you write a string arrangement for a quirky song like “Mama Told Me Not to Come?” What self-respecting conductor could stand with a straight face while leading the orchestra through “Joy to the World,” essentially a glorified “Sesame Street” song, with its goofy opening line, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog”?
I had to hear all that for myself Friday night in Kleinhans Music Hall. And I enjoyed it.
Led by Buffalo native Cory Wells and his four-decade musical buddy Danny Hutton, Three Dog Night gave a spirited performance, packing 17 songs into about 85 minutes.
The audience, including a lot of pretty ladies and gents like myself who probably had luxurious heads of hair when Three Dog Night was recording its hits, nearly filled the place. They genuinely seemed to enjoy the concert, especially the last few songs.
But, sorry to say, it could have been a lot better.
We’ve heard in recent weeks about carpets being removed from seating areas and been told how that was going to improve the sound quality at Kleinhans, but those improvements sure weren’t in evidence Friday night. I liked the way things sounded there before the carpet was taken out.
Muddled, sloppy sound hampered the show, especially the first half of it. At times, the drums were so loud, you could hardly hear anything else.
I know there was an orchestra on that stage. You could see them sitting behind Three Dog Night, and they looked like they were playing their instruments. But for most of the first half of the show, I could barely hear them. The band just drowned them out. A frustrated Hutton, again and again, could be seen gesturing to the sound technicians, trying to get things right.
I know the technicians who work at Kleinhans will get this fixed. It’s a world-class music hall, and its musicians and patrons deserve better.
With that diatribe out of the way, let me say once again that Three Dog Night’s performance was excellent. Playing before a hometown crowd, Wells proved that he still has that tough, urgent, piercing voice that used to jump out of the radio speakers back in the day. Hutton, too, is a first-rate vocalist.
Their road band these days includes two guys who have been with them since 1968 – talented, gnome-like guitarist Michael Allsup and keyboard player Jimmy Greenspoon. Bassist Paul Kingery is also a fine singer, and drummer Patrick Bautz is another good player.
They all play with enthusiasm and genuinely seem to enjoy firing up the old songs. It’s no secret why Three Dog Night had 21 hit songs, 12 gold albums and sold more than 50 million records. They were explosive, exciting performers who had an amazing knack for choosing the right songs. They still are.
During Friday night’s show, Wells had some fun with his slightly lewd vocal on Randy Newman’s “You Can Keep Your Hat On,” and the audience got into it, too. A bunch of people in the front row took their shoes off and shook them in the air when he sang, “Baby, take off your shoes.”
The hits kept coming – “Black and White,” “Never Been to Spain,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Out in the Country,” “Shambala” and “Old-Fashioned Love Song.” On a lesser-known song, “Heart of Blues,” we found that Wells has a nasty blues voice, and Kingery played a wicked little solo on slide guitar.
Allsup’s tasty guitar licks were right on the money all night long.
Unfortunately, you just couldn’t hear much interplay between Three Dog Night and the orchestra on most songs. At times, the band looked a bit uncomfortable with a huge orchestra behind them.
But then, 10 songs into the performance, the band temporarily left the stage, and conductor Larry Baird led the BPO through a beautiful prelude to Three Dog Night’s first hit, Harry Nilsson’s “One.” The prelude lasted about five minutes. Then Wells came back on stage and began singing. One by one, the rest of the band joined him. It was wonderful.
Another magical moment came during “Liar,” when the strings added a sinister backdrop to one of the band’s coolest songs. And the orchestra’s horn section, especially the saxophones, gave a funky edge to “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” another memorable Randy Newman song.
The big-feel song, “Celebrate,” had the audience on its feet. That was followed by “Prayer of the Children,” a spectacular a capella number featuring all six band members.
And finally, they ended the night with that goofy bullfrog song – “Joy to the World” – and the audience loved that, too. All in all, it made for an uneven night at the music hall, but not for any lack of effort by Three Dog Night.