In March 1970, Joe Cocker arrived in Los Angeles for a little rest and recreation. He had released two solo albums in quick succession, and had extensively toured and promoted these. Along the way, he also produced perhaps the standout performance at the iconic Woodstock Festival the previous year. His astonishing reworking of The Beatles relatively insipid, With A Little Help From My Friends, unleashed upon that writhing throng up at Max Yasgur’s farm, still ranks as one of the best cover versions of all time.
So, Joe, kicking back in L.A., was not expecting to be out on the road any time soon – but his manager had other ideas. Cocker was told, at impossibly short notice, that he was going to have to embark on a 52 day, 48 show tour, and that he had only eight days until the first date to find a band. If he refused, he was told, he would find it very hard to ever work in the States again.
Fast forward 48 years. That seemingly shambolic tour, hastily thrown together with a band of soon-to-be superstar musicians, together with a choir of wives, girlfriends and hangers-on, is now considered to have produced some of the rawest, rocking-est, and most exciting live performances of the rock era.
The recordings, in both sound and visual form, of the four Filmore concerts from the second week of that tour, were released as a double album and documentary film, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and made Joe Cocker a household name throughout the U.S. and the rest of the western world. Today, they are thrilling documents of a time when music had integrity, fire and passion, although not necessarily precision, and provide the blueprint for how to turn hedonism and excess into an art form.
For last year’s Fringe festival, father and son team, David & Miles Sly, took on the task of putting together a full Cocker-style super jam band, with the intention of recreating the raw excitement of that Mad Dogs tour.
With the two Slys on side by side drum kits; and two keyboard players – this year, Tom Kassai and Peter Martin; two horn players, Luke White and Ryan Harding; a guitarist, Tommy Kneebone; a bass player, Ryan Mifsud; and a nine piece choir, led by Jacqui Yeo; all accompanying the raspy vocals of Steve Brown, invited along to provide the full-on Cocker-isms, they produced a glorious and memorable celebration of the power of classic rock music.
This year the ensemble reformed to reprise that successful 2017 gig, and subsequently played two shows at The Gov which provided a magnificent finale to this year’s Fringe Festival.
Cocker was nothing if not a magnificent interpreter of other peoples’ songs, and the Mad Dogs set on Sunday night stayed true to Joe’s innovative takes on songs by The Beatles, The Stones, Leonard Cohen, Traffic and The Box Tops, which, over time, have superseded their original arrangements and become the widely accepted way to play these songs.
From the opening strains of Honky Tonk Women, the band were immediately right on the money. The sound they generated had muscle, and the musicianship from all involved was uniformly excellent.
The mood throughout the whole ensemble seemed buoyant, as if they knew they were producing something special, and they all seemed to be enjoying their involvement in creating something so triumphantly uplifting and cathartic.
Their joy was infectious, and those privileged to be in attendance could certainly feel their collective spirits rise as if at a funky Southern revivalist’s meeting. Hallelujah, praise the Lord – this was some fine, fine music!
Steve Brown, impressively, was not afraid to go for the roars and screams that punctuate and define Cocker’s delivery of these classics, and he immersed himself fully in his performance, channelling the spirit of Joe, although his air guitar finger work was not as impressive as JC’s!
After the adrenaline rush of Cry Me A River and Feelin’ Alright, choirmistress, Jacqui Yeo, the band’s own ‘Delta Lady’, stepped up to sing Leon Russell’s Superstar, as Rita Coolidge had done in the original show. Yeo’s vocal was emotive and affective, restoring the missing depth of soul to a song that The Carpenters had sterilised in claiming it as the supposedly ‘definitive’ version, and one of their signature tunes.
The show’s last bracket, largely following the original track sequence of side four of the album, built up an impressive head of steam and She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, Space Captain, The Letter and Delta Lady were all delivered with the same level of fiery, soulful commitment that had imbued the originals.
The crowd, although not at capacity, made a mighty din demanding the band return for more – and a fifteen minute With A Little Help From My Friends followed, complete with that spine-tingling lead guitar intro, and the spirited questioning interplay between the singer and the choir. Glorious stuff.
After a hectic month of attending Fringe, Adelaide Festival and other gigs around town, this was a great way to finish this year’s Mad March marathon. In terms of excitement, power and musical integrity, Mad Dogs: The Full Cocker was right up there amongst the best of all this festival season has offered.
Rating: 5 stars
Mad Dogs: The Full Cocker was performed at The Gov on March 18 as part of the Adelaide Fringe.