Who: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
What: The Farewell UK Tour
Where: The o2 Arena, Greenwich, London
When: 2nd December 2018
A Frankie Valli concert in 2018… is, well, a Frankie Valli concert. Unless you haven’t seen him perform in recent years, it doesn’t come packed with surprises. In fact, it doesn’t have any surprises. Even the possibility of the inclusion of a less well-known album track, say, Streetfighter or Harmony, Perfect Harmony is all but gone. He will talk about a recent album (Romancing the 60s) but that album is 11 years old now. He has one album since then, the Christmas set, “‘Tis the Seasons”, but even though it is the right time of year for something from that, there will be nothing in the show. And the show will probably be much the same as last time you saw him.
So, this is going to be a negative review, right? No, this was a wonderful, wonderful show.
The fact that an elder statesman is out there treading the boards of a large indoor arena in Britain’s biggest city and playing to a sold-out audience says it all. That his voice alternately hit the high notes of his falsetto range (Big Girls Don’t Cry) and sounded fine in his regular voice in any other part of the show (My Eyes Adored You) was amazing.
Mr Valli (born Francesco Castellucio) is normally reckoned to be about 84 but his record labels and management have giving us misinformation about his birthdate since the beginning so I’m not going to worry about that too much. He first found success with The Four Lovers, and the Four Seasons broke through in the early 60s. His success faded by the early 70s (by that time the band was a five piece, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) but then by 1974-75, he was making a huge comeback. This saw a band with a distinct identity having hits on Warner Bros, Frankie having solo hits on a fledging label, Private Stock, and their old label, Motown, who had tired of them, managing to get in on the act with a sizeable UK hit.
By the 1980s, his record sales had faded again and the size of venues he was playing to was smaller and it seemed like Autumn was upon his career. But then in recent times, the launch of the musical, Jersey Boys, has made people much more aware that one act recorded all those songs and success is flourishing again – at least, for the live shows and the compilation albums.
He has gone from the Fairfield Halls, Croydon to the o2 arena and that is no mean transition for someone at this point of their career.
Since Valli last visited the UK most of the band has changed. The idea of four musicians who are recognisably the “Seasons” is long past and this makes it much easier for changes in the ranks. Tonight, Basil Fung has replaced Larry Esparza on guitar. Bill DeLoach (who was a Season in the early Seventies and returned briefly) has been replaced by Sandro Rebel. Craig Pito is gone, and Andy Sanesi is now in on drums. Will Roberts is the new bass player. Richard Garcia has returned on percussion and Rick Keller is still on saxophone.
The four backing vocalists from recent years have all been replaced and now we have Erik Bates, Ronan Bay, Craig Cady and Joseph Ott creating that that same “Jersey Boys” ambience.
The main two, Frankie Valli and his musical director, Robby Robinson, are still standing — and obviously Frankie is what the audience are here to see. But Robby leads a tight and exemplary live band featuring excellent solos from Fung and Keller in particular.
There is an ongoing debate as to what degree Frankie’s vocal are live and to what degree they are enhanced or even lip synced. I have been watching live shows now for nearly 40 years and all I can say is that if the vocals aren’t live then, he is doing an incredible job of miming and that his voice sounds much closer to what it did on his two recent studio albums and the reworked version of “The Night” on a British compilation than it does on the classic recordings so I guess I come down in the former camps and certainly not the latter.
After a film-show which shows the highlights of Frankie’s career to an orchestrated overture of melodies from some of his best-known songs, the band take the stage for “Working My Way Back to You”. This is one of the many songs you’ll hear tonight that is perhaps better known in the UK for a cover than for the Seasons original – the Detroit version of the Spinners having taken it to number one in the charts. It is a reminder of just how many great songs Frankie’s musical partner, Bob Gaudio and the other writer in their circle were coming up with back in the day. This one was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell. Whilst “Working…” was a Seasons single other well-known songs had to be used as B-sides and album tracks because there were just too many great songs for individual single release. Next up is another great, “Dawn (Go Away)”, which was a Gaudio and Linzer composition. Everybody in the arena sings along – but neither of these opening songs were hits in the UK. We can credit “Jersey Boys” for the fact they are so widely known. Working My Way made only no.50 in the UK chart and Dawn didn’t chart at all.
Next is “Our Day Will Come”, originally a solo recording from the mid-70s which feature great solos from the aforementioned Fung and Keller (the more I write that it begins to sound like that magic duo – not a bad comparison!!). The first hit in the show that made the UK top 20 is “Opus 17” which of all the band’s hits has the strangest title. Again, it was co-written by Sandy Linzer who was the senior songwriter some twenty years on the Seasons’ mid-80s album “Streetfighter”. The year after Opus 17, “Tell it to the Rain”, would scrape into the UK top 40 but again, the audience knows these songs perfectly. For this one a thundery sky fills the backdrop and thunder rolls fill the arena. That is followed by the Seasons’ hit that preceded it in chronological terms, the clever rearrangement of the Cole Porter song “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. The close of the song tonight is picked up by the horn section in a fashion which sounds more Nelson Riddle than Bob Gaudio but that works just fine too.
Now, that the band had covered the territory of songs from the middle-60s, it was time to move to a different era- albeit with a song that originated in the mid-60s. “Beggin'” became an unlikely hit for the band in 2007 in the UK, thereby becoming the song that was also a little responsible for bringing the band back to the public’s attention and particularly to a younger generation. Then, it was time for a rendition of a song which needed some strong vocal harmonies from the new singers. “Silence is Golden” was a B-side for the Seasons back in the day, but their arrangement was lifted wholesale by the Tremeloes and consequently became a significant A-side hit for them in the UK. Over the years, the 4 Seasons have taken it back by making it a regular feature of their live performances. I wonder if it would have been a choice for an A-side if they could rewind the clock. Guess we’ll never know.
The next song was that later than expected hit on Motown that I alluded to earlier, “The Night” which brought a successful end to what otherwise had been a disastrous time for the band on the Detroit-based label. The arrangement tonight follows a new studio version that was recorded a few years ago. Led by bass, guitar and with strong support from the 4 backing singers, it also allows plenty of space for Robby Robinson and the horns. Everything you could want from a live version of this classic song.
Having traversed the line into the 1970s, it is time to explore some more songs from that territory and another song, which really only made it into the charts in the UK, “Fallen Angel”. Performed before a backdrop of modern art renditions of what an angel might look like, this is another great rendering although Mr Valli’s voice has one of its few wobbles of the night on the last line of the choruses. It also provided a great workout for Basil Fung on a lead guitar solo. More from the 70s was to come with “Swearin’ to God” up next. A little quirk here as the verse formerly sung by a female voice is now handled by the male singing group. Great sax solo from Rick Keller. Next, a faithful romp through Grease, accompanied by a backdrop of the stars of that film musical on the big screen behind the band.
Dedicating the next song to “the romantics in the audience”, Frankie then moved into “My Eyes Adored You” with the whole of the arena seemingly holding up lighters, torches and phones to make the place glow like a church on the carol service day.
Then another hit from the mid-70s with “Who Loves You” and we’re really on a roll.
Frankie then goes into a talk which he has been doing for a several years now in which he goes into a fake rap number whilst explaining his decision that he would record an album of sixties covers than an album of new songs. As always at this point, he ran into a medley of “Spanish Harlem”, “My Girl” and “Groovin'”. Now there are about 10 more songs on the album “Romancing the 60s” and since nothing on there was a hit, he could be faulted for not mixing up and using some of the others occasionally. But regardless, the ones used make for a perfectly acceptable and sweet group of songs and a slightly off-pace section of the show for those who might not know the album or haven’t seen Frankie perform live in the last decade or so.
So, we then move from a recent album of sorts to another cover, “Stay”, a song which was originally a hit for Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, but the Seasons made it their own in 63/64 taking it into the Billboard U.S. top 20 charts. It is a song which has had so many cover versions – including U.S. singer/songwriter, Jackson Browne.
Now there are still loose ends from the 60s and 70s to tidy up and next is the huge hit “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”. On the original recording, Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone who were then a major part of the Seasons shared vocals with Frankie, tonight he has 4 contributors with all the singers taking their part. Another great rendition.
After band introductions (including to Matt and Richard on trombone and trumpet, sitting in from the UK), we go to another song that the UK picked the wrong version of, passing over Frankie’s version for the inferior rendering of Andy Williams. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was nevertheless a huge hit in the U.S.A. making number one on the Cashbox listings.
From the solo recordings, we go to a trio of the band’s very first hits, “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man”. That falsetto still sounds great to me.
We have one more in regular playing time, Bye Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye), and this is a song that most UK listeners would more readily associate with the 1975 cover by the Bay City Rollers than its 1965 original. Thankfully, our cousins across the Atlantic had more sense.
The band played out to an instrumental version of that song led by the horn section whilst Frankie shook hands and then prepared to leave the stage. But in line with the audience request, there was indeed “more” – and Frankie stayed around for “Rag doll” – a hit in both the UK and the US way back in 1964. The show closed out with a song of a similar vintage, “Let’s Hang On”.
There is really nothing to fault in this show. Hardcore fans will no doubt have things they’d like to have seen or wish that the 4 Seasons career had gone in a different direction at various junctures, but that Mr Valli is still out on the road bringing us these shows after all these years, is really quite something.
If this is truly the last time, we see him in London, I’m just grateful for all the memories.